9 Reasons Your Job Ads Aren't Working

Published by:
Andy Babbage
October 9, 2018
min read

Inclusive Job Description Template

Updated 09/06/21 with new research around gender-coding and listing requirements.

While browsing through Hung Lee’s excellent recruiting brainfood a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Jeff Bezos’ first Amazon job ad.

What struck me was that it is incredibly simplistic and pithy while still conveying quite a lot of what I’d imagine the culture at Amazon would have been like at the time. A certain no-fuss directness comes across, as well as a really clever appeal to ego (I love the ‘one-third the time’ comment). At Applied, we are often asked to analyse the effectiveness of job descriptions, something that we approach through the lens of behavioural science and data analytics. Bezos appears to break several of the best practices that we know of in this area.

So this got me thinking how would this job ad fare in today’s overcrowded market, particularly as the war for talent is at a fever pitch (particularly in tech). Who would have found this job ad appealing? Would it attract whole swathes of people or just people from a particular mould? Would Bezos today write this job advert any differently?

So we decided to put Bezos’ job ad through the Applied Job Description Analysis Tool that pulls together the research and best practices in this area, and have given it a score. Before we get there though, I’ll take you through 9 ways we know can improve the inclusiveness and conversion rates of job ads and descriptions. Keeping ol’ Jeff’s ad in mind, can you see which pitfalls he’s managed to tiptoe around and which ones he’s plummeted into head-first?

Despite the unashamedly click-baity title of this article, we actually think that writing great job descriptions in today’s market is a hard task. Recruiters and hiring managers have a tough job of trying to convey exactly what they are looking for while trying to rise above the noise, to essentially talk about a job that sounds the same as any other job. It’s no walk in the park.

How do I make my job adverts better? Here’s what the science says you're doing wrong...

1. An endless list of requirements

A very common practice for hiring managers looking to recruit is to ask their colleague Derek for the last job advert that he used for a similar role. This job description may have started out as a fairly sensible representation of what was required in the role, however over time each manager has added their own bullets to the end of the requirements, ranging from ‘Must have excellent knowledge of Microsoft Office’ to ‘Must be a team player’. Sometimes the odd ‘Must be a ninja’ inexplicably finds its way in there.

The result is a gangly hodgepodge of requirements describing an unlikely purple unicorn with astounding strategic vision who also has mad Excel skills.

The solution is simple, only list the requirements you actually need.

On average, men tend to apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requirements, whereas women only apply for a job if they meet 100% of the requirements.

Partly this is related to gendered differences in confidence, but other research also suggests it’s linked to women being more rule-following, and thus not applying because they (erroneously but understandably) believe that requirements, are, well, just that: requirements. If you have an endless list of requirements or even preferences that you don't actually need, you’ll limit the people who apply to the job.

Just take a look at the survey below, that the most common reason for not applying (for both genders) was “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.”

So it’s not a matter of candidates not believing they could do the job itself.

They didn’t apply to the job advert because they didn't think they would be hired at all if they didn't meet the requirements.

2. Gendered language

The words we use matter. We know this to be true. In the context of a job advert, the main problem is that gendered words unintentionally signal belonging (or not).

This is a much more subtle effect than blatantly referring to everyone in your company as ninjas.

This is about the implicit and unconscious thought processes and biases that go on in our heads without our knowledge, forming snap judgements based on imperfect information, which are quite often mistaken. Heavily masculine coded job ads have been shown to give women a lower sense that they would belong in a position or company.

To avoid this one, we recommend that you use a gendered language detection tool and think carefully about the words you choose.

A neutrally worded description is ideal.

Openreach's research found that women were 50% less likely to consider roles that have a coded gender bias.

When presented with a feminine-coded job description as part of the study, women’s interest in the role increased by more than 200%, with 60% stating this was because of the way it was written.

And if we look at the results of our own research, we can see that both feminine and neutral-coded job adverts increase the odds of women, applying, whilst masculine-coded adverts decrease the odds.

Gender coding effect on diversity of hires (chart)

3. Too wordy and complicated

Using sesquipedalian words in labyrinthine sentences merely obfuscates what you’re trying to communicate.

By that I mean using overly long words or complex language makes it hard to understand what is required in the role. Also with the digital attention span of today’s market, people just cannot be bothered reading pages of dense description.

Avoid this pitfall by testing the reading burden of your job ad and making sure it is as easy to read as possible, or at least at the level of complexity required to do the job.

4. Boring (buzzwords)

“We’re looking for a game-changing disruptor who can right-size and paradigm shift our blue sky thinking. Synergy.” This sentence will make most people cringe and rightfully so. I think Forbes summed it up well in this article Ten Business Buzzwords That Make you Sound Like an Idiot . These words have been overused to the point where they are at best meaningless and at worst a damning indication of a vapid, soulless workplace.

Cut these words out and speak honestly about what your team and organisation does. It’s amazing how refreshing it can be to read a plainly worded job description.

5. Too long, too short

People won’t read your job ad if it is pages long and it probably breaks 3 or 4 other recommendations on this list if it is overly long. Your best hire might be busy, distracted or reading it on a small device. Pare it back to the crux of what the role is, communicating in simple, concise language. Short job ads are okay, except they probably don’t mention all of the good stuff we recommend in points 5 and 6.

Shorter posts receive 8.4% more applications - the ideal job ad is between 300 and 800 words; enough to concisely describe the role without the waffle.

6. Doesn’t talk about team, culture, or what it is like to work there.

Job ads should be just as much about selling the organisation as it is about specifying the skills required to do the job. The vast majority of job ads will only concentrate on what the role will entail and few actually talk about the team or culture in anything other than corporate platitudes.

It’s important to convey the vibrant and dynamic workforce that you are part of (unless of course your workplace is neither of those things, and probably honesty will be your best policy here!). Why does the organisation exist? Does it have a purpose that people can get excited about? For many people these are the main drawcards of a company and certainly a factor that is defining how millennials choose where to work in the future of work.

And don't forget to include the salary. Linkedin’s research found that 61% of candidates consider salary to be the most important part of the job description... but very few job adverts actually bother to give potential candidates even a rough ballpark figure.

Most important information on a job ad (chart)

7. Doesn’t mention flexible working

A key theme often discussed in the future of work is mobility and flexible working. The days of the 9-to-5 facetime are slowly disappearing as work is starting to adapt around remote workers and different lifestyles. If your company is on the forefront of how people work in the 21st century (and the best ones are), then you’ll know its value in creating productive and inclusive teams where people can flourish.

If there is flexibility around working hours, location or job sharing then make sure it’s mentioned in the ad - its a top draw card for the best talent.

8. Overemphasis on education and experience

Number of years of education and experience are two of the least predictive indicators of how someone will perform in a role. Yet we are all guilty of specifying ‘4-6 years of experience’ and ‘must have an MBA’, simply as we expect these facts to be indicative of other skills or qualities we are looking for in candidates. They’re proxies for what we think helps us identify the people we want. These types of requirements will prejudice people from different backgrounds who may be older, younger or from a different socio-economic background. They can also just be noisy indicators - some MBAs will have the precise skills you’re looking for, but others will be a terrible fit for what the job actually requires; and importantly, god forbid, some non-MBAs are nevertheless totally qualified for what you need.

The answer is simple, list and test for the skills you actually need to do the job, rather than a proxy.

Ask yourself if you really need that many years or a PhD to actually do the job.
Predictive validity of assessment methods (chart)

9. It kinda sounds like you

Okay, so you’ve completely nailed this job description. This person is going to be perfect; let’s face it, they’ll probably be pretty awesome and look like a younger, slightly less attractive and successful version of you. What you’ve actually done is hire in your own image, using your own view of yourself to try and duplicate your amazing skills. Diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on several levels, including productivity and innovation. You should look for skills which complement rather than overlap one another and bring in diversity of thought and perspective.

Achieve this by really having a good, hard think about the skills you need to do the role and enable the broader team. Some people think of this as ‘culture add’ rather than ‘culture fit’.

Break your job down into 6 or fewer key skills and make sure these are emphasised and, of course assessed once the candidates apply.

So, after that marathon it’s time to see how the big cheese Bezos himself has fared with his very first job ad. Plugging his job ad into our very own Job Description Analysis Tool, the ad gets an inclusion score of 75/100 and a conversion score of 54/100. He does well on many metrics, largely because the job advert is so short that there's not much that can go too wrong.

Always the rule breaker though, Bezos has broken a few of them. Here are the ones that would probably have to be looked at and re-thought today:

  • Rule 5 - too long, too short. It’s way too short (108 words) which makes it hard to analyse but also means it only talks about the job and nothing else.
  • Rule 6 - Doesn't talk about team. It does mention 'intense' and 'interesting' co-workers which to me sounds a bit scary rather than appealing.
  • Rule 7 - Doesn't mention flexible working. This was 1994 remember so options were limited - I bet it would have to change in today's world.
  • Rule 9 - It kinda sounds like you. It sounds like Jeff Bezos is recruiting another Jeff Bezos right?

The question is: if you didn't know this was Amazon would you apply?

So hopefully I've given you pause for thought with these tips - if you take just one thing away from this blog it would be that the words you use matter, especially when attracting your most valuable asset; people. So spend some time on your job adverts and get them right.

If you are interested in seeing how your own job ads fare in our tool, you can have a play for free here

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