Improving the Hiring Process One Word at a Time

Job postings often miss the mark because employers pay too little attention to the way they’re written. When that happens, high-quality candidates may not respond.


To prove this point, a test was conducted for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), a federal government agency that was overhauling vacancy announcements. One style of job announcement was created to publicize all open positions. Candidates targeted for these positions ranged from 21-year-old soon-to-be college graduates to 50-somethings shaking off jobs they’d had forever in the hopes of finding greater professional reward. Naturally, varied responses were expected, depending on age and professional experience. But in reality, this didn’t happen. The participants’ reactions were consistent; proving one style of job announcement really can do it all.

So how can you write job announcements that “speak” to diverse yet qualified candidates? The work conducted for OPM suggests that three problems need to be addressed—actually avoided—when writing job announcements.

Problem 1: A glut of the wrong candidates applying for the wrong jobs, jamming mailboxes and forcing recruiters to wade through a mire of resumes looking for the right ones. Who is the candidate? Think about it. If unemployed, he or she is probably insecure, or at least shaky, pressured and overwhelmed by the task of finding the right job. Yes, the clock is ticking—propelled, in this case, by financial obligations. If candidates are employed, they are doubtlessly distracted, working their current job by day and the job-seeker’s job by night. Either way, the candidates have neither the time nor the patience to wade through thick job applications or narrow down their hunt-and-peck method of job seeking to determine if the job is right for them.

Like all of us, these candidates respond best to reader-engaging, response-directed messages—especially step-by-step instructions. Everything from the ever-popular gardening and home repair magazines to how-to books capitalize on this approach. So, why not turn requirements into reader-engaging instructions that help candidates better self-select?

Note, for example, how this setup is easy for the candidate to miss: “All applicants must meet the requirements of a bachelor’s or higher degree in accounting.”

The following revision of the job requirements insists on the candidates’ participation: “To apply for this position, first determine if you have the necessary qualifications including at least a bachelor’s in accounting.”

Problem 2: Candidates sending insufficient or incorrect materials. So, the candidate looks good—or at least in the cover letter or according to the associate who recommended that the person apply. But, the supporting material in the package is too long, the references are incomplete, and the package arrived by mail—not electronically as you requested.

Dismiss the candidate? Doubtful, when the good parts are so good and the other candidates are so … unlikely.

Packages often get derailed because candidates miss the fine print indicating what they should send. Of course, the fine print could be in an 18-point font, but, in the crush of requirements, it might as well be in invisible ink. Creating an instruction, rather than a demand, is one solution. Another is to follow the old, albeit modified, adage: It’s not what you say, but where you say it.

Candidates, like most readers, pay the greatest attention to information in the first paragraph. Article openings must be pithy and intriguing or contain some modicum of fire or the reader ignores the entire article. Similarly, candidates read the opening paragraph, glaze over through the middle, and revive somewhere toward the end of hiring documents. Interestingly, before OPM’s job announcements were revised, key information was nestled mid-page where the reader was sure to miss it.

Even when key points must reside midway in the document, you can prep readers for this information. In the all-important opening, for example, you can point them to the requirements eagerly awaiting them in Part II of the application.

Problem 3: Candidates reluctant to apply because the positions appear either too difficult or too boring. The heart of this typical problem lies beating in the managers’ chests. Or, to be more precise, in their attitudes, best articulated by one manager who asked: “Why would anyone ever want this job?”

I immediately advised him to rush out and buy a copy of Working: A Teaching Guide (New Press: 2001) by Studs Terkel and Rick Ayers. In it, the authors reveal that employees find value in the most seemingly menial positions. Their job satisfaction stems from the value their efforts bring to others. And believe me, the value is there. Managers and others in the hiring process just need to open their eyes and look. If the view is still hazy, they should ask, What do employees in that position most like about it? What do fellow employees value about them? Then, equipped with this essential information, a manager is prepared to write the announcement. For example, the following sample from the OPM study states the duties as valueless entities, floating somewhere in employment space:

Duties: Receives, records, sorts, batches, associates, controls, stages, collects, mails, extracts and distributes incoming/ outgoing work …

This revision creates an honest framework: Your duties in this position are to help the office function more smoothly and create an overall better work environment. To make this happen, you will take on these responsibilities—among others:

Ensure a smooth workflow by receiving, recording, sorting, collecting, mailing and distributing incoming and outgoing work …

In the OPM study, we also picked up some unexpected insights. We knew, for example, that candidates don’t like long paragraphs. Who does? In fact, readers generally treat them as unsightly blemishes, which they avoid in favor of the shorter, smaller and more attractive specimens. What we discovered, however, is that the candidates were actually offended by the long paragraphs. For example, one paragraph discussed the prerequisites for candidates who wanted special consideration in the hiring process. About the denser version, one candidate said: “I would not feel very welcome and [the paragraph] is confusing.” About the rewrite, where the most significant difference was white space, he said: “[This] encourages people in these circumstances to apply” and “I would feel very welcome.” Of course, hiring and recruitment documents can’t be totally cheerful—especially in this day and age of drug tests, background checks and other checks designed to challenge our integrity. Do we really like to hear we will not get the job if we fail the drug test? Wouldn’t we rather be loved and trusted from the start and hear that we will be eligible for the job once we pass the drug test? Actually, the candidates in our test proved otherwise. When reading a line or two of negativity, they basically were indifferent, responding only to whether they felt the content was fair. Finally, managers and everyone else involved in the hiring process must recognize the value of interesting language. True, the sound bites posted in newspapers, on web sites and on the posters at recruitment fairs have punch and pizzazz. But job materials are typically sluggish, weighed down by hiring and recruitment language, too boring (yawn) and lazy to heed their true calling. By livening up the language and adapting the message in the ways described here, managers will reap rewards that go beyond the perfect candidate.

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