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  • Publish Date: Posted over 3 years ago
  • Author: Steve Twinley

In nearly 15 years of recruitment, I have reviewed my fair share of CVs and have become somewhat immune to certain phrases (is there anyone out there, for example, who isn’t able to "work both alone and as part of a team"..???!!!). Similarly, I have read a great number of job descriptions and listened to the types of questions that candidates usually ask once they have read them. In many cases, I have been left questioning the value of a job spec; and sometimes I even wonder whether they can cause more harm than good.

Before diving into a debate, let’s take a step back and ask some questions: 

  1. Who writes the job specs, and why? 

Broadly, this depends on the size of the organisation. In smaller businesses, a job spec is likely to be written by the company owner or the relevant hiring manager. There tends to be a lot of variance between specs across the company in terms of length, tone and the depth into which the author goes to describe the position. In many cases, a smaller company’s job spec tends to double up as the job advert, whether it is placed on the company website, Linkedin or elsewhere. 

In larger businesses, job specs are likely to have a more standardised format and are often held and managed centrally by HR, with involvement from the hiring manager in compiling certain sections. Larger companies’ job specs tend to be longer and peppered with “general responsibility” sections which apply to all roles across the organisation. In other words, they attempt not only to summarise this specific role but also to reinforce company values and expectations within the business culture. 

These are observations after reading countless job specs from both large and small organisations. There will always be exceptions, and there isn’t necessarily a “right” or “wrong” style. That said, I do often get the feeling that job specs have been written to fulfil certain internal / political demands and it may be worth thinking about the bigger picture. 

2) Who reads the job specs, and why? 

Now this is the important point. A lot of HR and hiring managers might fall into the trap of writing or redeveloping a job spec without fully considering the potential audience. A job spec might be read by: 

  • Current staff (people at this level, or more junior, or more senior) 

  • Potential applicants (whether or not they choose to apply, and whether or not they are successful)  

  • Recruiters (both your existing suppliers and potential recruiters who want to work with you) 

  • Competitors (companies are always very interested to know how certain roles are positioned within competitors’ businesses) 

I won’t go into detail about each of these potential examples here; but the key message is that your job specs could be viewed by more or less anyone, both inside and outside the organisation. Every person is likely to pick up on different parts of a job spec, some of which could provoke a less than favourable reaction if they have an issue with something.

As a recruiter, when I look at a new job spec I tend to think about how I am going to sell this as a job opportunity to potential candidates, either through writing an advert or by contacting people who may not be actively looking at new opportunities (we refer to such individuals as “passive candidates”).  

…And Here’s The Main Point 

Nine times out of ten, once I have reviewed the job spec I will have a conversation with the hiring manager to discuss the role. And nine times out of ten, the way they describe the role in their own words will be almost completely different to how the role is portrayed in the job spec - even if this person wrote the spec themselves. 

Whether the company is large or small, and whether the job spec was written by the company owner, hiring manager or HR, the way the role is summarised verbally will almost always have little or no resemblance to the job spec. But why is this? It is something I have puzzled over many times and have not yet figured out. Perhaps it is something to do with people being more concise and less formal when describing the role verbally. Let’s face it - how many times have you been at a Summer BBQ where someone has asked you what you do for a living, and you describe your job in 2 or 3 sentences which you have never uttered anywhere else before? It seems to be a similar principle when a recruiter asks a hiring manager to describe what they are looking for in a new hire. Suddenly it is less about bullet points on a job spec and more about the type of person they need. 

In today’s ever-changing world of employment, where flexibility and agility (from all sides) are of crucial importance, what exact value does a job spec actually have? If it is so detailed that it lists every single possible duty that person may have, then what happens if they are asked to do something different one day? As an employer, you are opening yourself up to future difficulties by asking people to do things that aren’t on their job description. However, on the other hand, what happens if a job spec is too brief or undefined, and the person in question doesn’t know what is expected of them? It is a tricky balance to strike.

For certain roles, dare I say it, it could be better to have no job spec at all. Or, if that seems too unstructured, could there be another option...of having “work in progress” specs?  

Sometimes we recruit for roles that are newly-created and have no existing jobholder. As such, there is often a tentative “draft” job spec which outlines the role but is deliberately not 100% finalised, because the exact role will depend on the person who gets it. Now, thisis exciting for new applicants because it shows that a great deal of thought has been put into the recruitment project; but it also shows that the company appreciates the need to be flexible in order to fit the new hire. The message this sends to potential candidates is that the company is open to ideas and can personalise the role - how great is that?! And this doesn’t have to simply apply to newly-created roles either - it can just as easily apply to established positions in bigger teams, especially if the company is trying to promote a flexible, inclusive culture (which is very much the order of the day at the moment).  

If there can be a culture of ongoing development and continuous improvement within an organisation, then it may in turn be healthy for job specs to be a continuously evolving thing, to be visited in periodic reviews. This may pose more of a logistical HR problem in some cases, but nonetheless it may be worth considering.

It is all about communicating the right balance of detail to all potential audiences, both internal and external. It is a great deal more complex than this brief article suggests, but hopefully there is some food for thought in here. 

Please feel free to call me on 01403 216216 for a confidential discussion about how your company writes and updates its job specs, and where there might be potential for some fresh ideas. Life is all about change, after all! 

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