Updated 28/05/2021 with best practices for engineering job descriptions.
FACT: the words you use in your job descriptions affect who applies.
Struggling to get enough applicants?
Lacking in quality candidates?
If your procedure for writing a job description consists of a google search and copy+paste, then you’re not using them to their full potential.
This is how to attract a richer, more diverse candidate pool simply by writing more inclusive, conversion-optimised job descriptions.
How to write a job description: the guide
- What is the purpose of a job description?
- Using behavioural science to optimise job descriptions
- Step 1: What is inclusive language?
- Step 2: Experience and education
- Step 3: Reading burden
- Step 4: Job requirements
- Step 5: Selling your organisation
- Use this job description template
What is the purpose of a job description?
A job description is your chance to make a positive impression on a candidate, whilst providing a list of responsibilities as well as the essential skills required. This means selling both your company and the job role itself, whilst also painting an image of your ideal employee.
We think a job description is both an art and a science. What we mean by this, is that you need to get inside of the head of your ideal candidate, and use this to write something compelling and engaging.
Want to take your job description optimisation to the next level? Try our handy Job Description Analysis Tool for free.
Creating the ideal job description
9 times out of 10, a job description will follow a standard template:
- A summary of both the company and the role advertised
- An overview of core responsibilities and duties
- A list of preferred qualifications (both professional and academic) and skills
- The advertised salary range and company benefits
- Any specific requests or requirements for submitting the job application
The above structure tends to be a given. But what this means is that often, hiring managers become complacent. They feel as though they don’t need to think too much about making the job description as appealing as possible to a rich and diverse candidate pool.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the fascinating world of behavioural science, helping leaders craft a compelling job description that is sure to attract an abundance of eager, skilled and talented candidates. But before we delve into this too much, here are some expert tips for creating a truly compelling job description.
Listing job requirements
Your run-of-the-mill job description usually lists a set of key requirements, often broken down into ‘essential skills’, ‘nice-to-have skills’ and 'soft skills'.
Writing a job description allows you to hone in on what makes a high-quality candidate. Clear selling points include a proven track record of fulfilling the job’s essential responsibilities and relevant industry experience. However, one thing to be wary of is being too prescriptive in your job requirements.
First, it overlooks the abundance of transferable skills offered by your average candidate. If you simply want a clone of your last employee, you’re cutting yourself off from all the benefits of a fresh perspective and skillset.
Second, research has shown that listing too many requirements will decrease applications.
Why is this?
Well, research has shown that generally speaking, women tend not to apply for roles unless they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men who will apply meet only 60% of the requirements.
This is likely due to a combination of gendered differences in confidence and the fact that women are more socialised to follow the rules (whereas men tend to be socialised to think rules are meant to be broken).
It's important to note here that this gendered difference in approach isn't due to how women see themselves and their skills.
It's about how they see the hiring process itself.
If we look at the results of one survey below, we can see 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.”
It wasn't that they thought they wouldn't be able to do the job.
They didn't think they would be hired at all if they didn't meet the requirements.
We can also see that there was a significant gender difference in the responses for one particular reason: “I was following the guidelines about who should apply.”
Only 8% of men had this as their reason for not applying.
So, if you list a metric ton of ‘requirements’ when writing a job description - they’ll be perceived as exact specifications by some and mere desirables by others.
This doesn’t just apply to women. As it turns out, men can also be discouraged by a steep set of criteria.
Some candidates may simply be more risk-averse than others. The more requirements, the more it seems like a risk to apply.
More requirements = more candidates that qualify themselves out.
*This may seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. Being risk-averse bears zero relation to ability or competence.
You should also consider removing any 'nice-to-haves'.
Risk-averse candidates will perceive these as being more requirements than desirables and may forgo their application.
What requirements are worth listing?
Ideally, your requirements should be a combination of key responsibilities, desired skills and working characteristics.
A few examples we've used to hire Applied team members include: written communication skills, data analysis, prioritisation, and strategic thinking.
It’s tempting to ask for familiarity with the exact systems or practices at your organisation so that the candidate would ‘hit the ground running’ if hired, but you’re potentially dismissing talented people just because they haven’t worked with x software or practices yet.
Not having done something before doesn’t mean someone wouldn’t be good at it - or even the best (if in doubt, may I refer you back to our CV-related revelation above).
In more technical roles, like software engineering, you may feel candidates must be adept in certain disciplines or tech (such as programming languages and frameworks).
You can list these in the job description.
They still don’t need to be ‘requirements’.
How to list requirements for an engineering role
Roles that are very technical - like engineering - tend to be seen as requiring predominately 'hard' skills.
And so candidates without these specific hard skills are often overlooked.
However, according to a 2019 Tidelift survey, only 32% of a developer's time is spent writing new code or improving existing code.
Dealing with specific languages is only part of the job.
Most engineering teams use an agile delivery framework (i.e. Scrum), which requires teamwork rather than individual contribution -and therefore 'softer' skills.
For the most part, languages are only syntactically different and so picking up a new language isn’t overly tricky.
You could even argue that a fresh perspective introduces new patterns and behaviours into someone's code that are actually beneficial.
So when it comes to writing a job description for an engineering role at Applied, we list some details about our tech stack to give candidates an idea of what they'd be getting up to... but specific languages are never a requirement.
Key takeaway: Trim down your requirements to the bare essentials (keeping below 10 could be a solid start). If any of your ‘requirements’ are more desirable/ ideal than literal requirements, it's best to remove them.
Sell your organisation - why should someone come to work for you?
Job descriptions work both ways.
Candidates are assessing whether you’re the right fit for them too.
Top talent will have their pick of job offers, so give them a reason to choose you right out of the gate.
Be as upfront as humanly possible about salary, company benefits, and flexible working options.
You’ll set the right expectations and potentially help sell your role, and you’ll also stand out from the hordes of roles that lack any transparency around salary.
You want to set off on the right foot - candidates will appreciate your openness...
No candidate wants to feel like the job is given to the lowest bidder.
Advertising your salary range
Linkedin’s research found that 61% of candidates consider salary to be the most important part of the job description.
For many recruiters and candidates, their absolute biggest bugbear is the term ‘competitive salary.’ First, it overlooks the fact that salary is undoubtedly one of the most influential factors in a person deciding to apply for a job. Secondly, it often gives the impression that companies are averse to having frank, open conversions about salary.
This often means that their salary isn’t as ‘competitive’ as they’d like to think.
Putting it simply - if a job is worth £40k per year, advertise it at that. Job done!
However, salary isn’t necessarily the #1 reason people apply for jobs.
In a 2018 survey, the top reason people gave for changing jobs was...
Employees aren’t robots.
Surprise surprise, people actually want to progress in their career and tackle new challenges.
So what can you do about this?
Let candidates know what they’ll be doing in their first 6 months
Not only does this sell the job to candidates, but it could also put the more risk-averse candidates I mentioned earlier at ease.
Also, why not talk about why your organisation exists?
If you have a purpose that people can get behind (or at least get vaguely enthusiastic about) then be sure to throw this in too, since this will also give the sense of a new, exciting challenge.
True, it may be an employer’s market… but edginess has its limits.
Describe your work culture and what it’s like to work in your team
According to Jobvite’s study, 46% of job seekers cite company culture as very important when choosing whether or not to apply for a job.
Candidates will be spending 40+ hours a week working with your team, in your office.
And they want to know what that’s going to be like.
The more you can do to paint an accurate picture of the company/ team culture when writing a job description, the better.
You don’t need a Shoreditch office littered with bean bags and pool tables to impress.
Think about how the team works together?
What are the team’s values?
Key takeaway: Don’t hold back - tell candidates all that you can about salary, culture, and what they might be working on.
Our data-driven job description template
We know that writing to heaps of specific requirements isn’t easy, which is why we put a job description template together to help you write inclusive, high-converting JDs with minimal effort.
*All of the guidelines below are based on behavioural science research.
Company description (200 words)
- Describe your organisation and the team
- What's your organisation's mission?
- How will this person contribute to the mission?
- Why is this a great opportunity?
The [job title] should have these skills:
What skills and working characteristics should this person have?
E.g. written communication, data analysis, prioritisation, etc.
List no more than 8.
In your first 6 months, you'll:
What would you hope this person achieves in their first 6 months? What big projects would they be working on?
Like the rest of the Company X Team, you'll benefit from:
What are the perks? E.g. equity, a benefits package, health insurance, etc
What are the next steps? (150 words)
What does the candidate need to do to apply? What does the rest of the process look like?
You can grab a PDF version of our job description template via the link below - we threw in a job advert template too!
We also used the same behavioural science-based approach to build the Applied platform, baking diversity, inclusion, and data into every step of the hiring process. You can now take it for a spin by requesting a free demo.
Optimising your job descriptions using behavioural science
Let’s get something straight - when a person reads a job description, more often than not they’re not consciously dissecting every single word. That’s because their brains are doing the heavy lifting.
When we’re deciding whether or not to apply for a job, we’re relying on mental shortcuts that are formed based on our existing knowledge and previous experience. The same goes for when we’re creating job descriptions - we’re relying on a pre-existing image of what an ideal candidate looks like. What this means is that job descriptions can often be susceptible to unconscious bias. This distorts our perception and affects our hiring decisions - usually for the worse.
Below are some expert tips on how to minimise the impact of unconscious bias in job descriptions, so hiring managers can reach the widest possible pool of candidates.
Remember that many talented job seekers will be put off by certain language
When potential candidates read a job description, they're judging whether or not this role/company is a good match for them.
And the words you use convey subconscious meaning.
Those who feel that they don’t ‘fit the bill’ will subconsciously count themselves out.
Women, for example, are turned off from applying if the job description includes excessive masculine language like ‘superior’, ‘competitive’, ‘decisive’ and ‘determined’.
The result: top talent is potentially missed as are your hopes of building diverse teams.
Here's the cost of writing a job description WITHOUT optimisation, explained by Demetre in our job description webinar (which you can watch back here)...
So, let’s look at the key areas in which your job descriptions are likely falling short, and see what we can do to fix them.
Writing high converting job descriptions doesn’t require any guesswork, with a little behavioural science know-how, you can craft job descriptions that cast your net wide, and land you a bigger, more diverse candidate pool to fish from.
So, let’s look at the key areas in which your job descriptions are likely falling short, and see what we can do to fix them.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language simply means that you don’t use terms that are associated with a particular group.
When it comes to writing a job description, avoid gender-coded words and phrases to attract an even gender split.
The language you use in your job description signals whether or not a candidate would belong in your workplace.
Whilst you may not even be conscious of using masculine-coded language, by asking for characteristics typically attributed to males, you’re (albeit unintentionally) signalling that a male would be a better fit - and so women will be less likely to apply.
A study conducted by the University of Waterloo and Duke University found people are less likely to apply to job adverts that had words biased in favour of the opposite gender.
The impact of gendered language will vary from person to person, and overtly masculine-coded job descriptions can actually deter males too.
Check out the results of our own research on this…
The main insight here: There is a higher proportion of female applicants when the job description is feminine(51%) or strongly feminine(54%).
There are slightly fewer female applicants when JD’s are coded as masculine (48%) especially when they’re strongly masculine (44%).
Generally, feminine-worded job descriptions will increase the odds of women applying, while masculine coded job descriptions will discourage female applicants.
We also looked at the gender diversity of those who were actually hired after applying...
We're not the only ones who have improved gender diversity through writing more inclusive job descriptions...
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.
This gender coding was then tested against the original, less inclusive job description.
- 31% of women felt the original job description was more suited to a man than a woman
- And just 13% of women felt gender inclusive job description was more suited to a man than a woman
Also, the study found that although 80% of women said they wouldn't consider working in engineering, 56% became interested once the word ‘engineer’ had been removed.
So, what counts as masculine coded language?
According to Totaljobs’ survey, the top used male-coded terms were “lead” (leadership, leader, etc.), words associated with analytics, as well as competitive, active and confident.
Most commonly used male-gendered words in UK job descriptions:
Most commonly used female-gendered words in UK job descriptions:
For more examples of gendered language, check out this LinkedIn article.
You should also cut your stereotypical startup lingo such as ‘guru’, ‘hacker’, or even ‘rockstar’(not only are they deterring female candidates, but they’re also pretty lame).
Key takeaway: Aim for either a neutral or feminine coded job description
Won’t that put men off of applying? No… men aren’t equally deterred by feminine coded language. A neutral JD would be ideal, but if it’s feminine-coded it shouldn’t have a significant negative impact on the gender balance of applicants.
Reconsider education and experience requirements - they don’t matter as much as you think
Would you believe us if we told you: both previous experience and education are some of the weakest predictors of actual ability?
*This is why instead of taking a candidate’s word for it that they can do the job, we ditched CVs and invite them to prove their ability using work sample questions instead.
We're sure you’ve encountered (or created) your share of job descriptions that state “minimum x years' experience” or “educated to degree level” - whilst these may seem ‘essential’ requirements, they don’t actually tell you whether someone is any good at their job.
Just take a look at the results of this landmark metastudy below.
Here at Applied, we would never have hired (or even met!) 60% of the candidates we offered jobs to if we’d relied on their CVs alone. Why? Because proxies like experience and education are misleading. They simply don’t reflect ability.
We also know from decades worth of research that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately overlooked in a typical hiring process.
A 2019 study from the University of Oxford found that candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get the same results as a White-British person.
If we demand that candidates have a specific background, then we're essentially perpetuating the cycle of not having the right experience and therefore not being able to gain this experience.
The same goes for education.
Privileged students are 6x more likely to secure places at top UK universities than their disadvantaged peers.
To improve organizational diversity (and wider systemic inequality), we have to break this cycle by looking past candidates' background.
So, cut both education and experience requirements out of your job descriptions as much as possible.
By setting out criteria like this, you’re completely discounting anyone who:
- Took a different path to get where they are in their career (i.e. not via a university degree).
- Is as talented as older peers but simply lacks a few years' of experience.
- Transferred from a similar field but lacks industry-specific experience;
- Comes from a disadvantaged background and didn’t get the chance to get a certain qualification.
- Feels they're too old given the years of experience stated.
We could go on, but you get the point.
Of course, for some roles (think medical industry), there might be some degree of education that is genuinely required in order to work safely, but for your average business role, ask yourself this: does this person really need a certain degree or a number of years' experience to be good at their job?
Chances are, they don’t.
You can still refer to experience and education in your job description (if you must), but do avoid putting them as requisites.
Key takeaway: Reconsider what qualifications or years' of experience are actually needed for someone to excel in the role. We’d recommend ditching both altogether and testing skills later on.
Scrap the jargon and fancy language - your job description should be clear and concise
Job descriptions should be written at the reading level required to do the job.
This doesn’t mean you’re lowering the bar for dummies...
If you’re not hiring an in-house Mark Twain, then there’s no need for long, rambling sentences and cool-sounding jargon.
The best person for the job may be in a hurry, distracted, or reading from a small screen.
Nobody wants to read a mini-essay length job description.
Not only will time-strapped, in-demand talent skip straight over it, but a quick glimpse of a long job description could be all someone needs to decide they wouldn’t meet the criteria.
You only have a matter of seconds to make a great first impression - make ‘em count!
4 Quick tips for improving job description readability:
- Keep your sentences short and sweet.
- Ditch the jargon and acronyms - knowing the meaning of fancy technical terms ≠ talent.
- Forget buzzwords/ phrases (my personal favourite being ‘think outside the box’).
- Stay between 300-800 words. Shorter posts receive 8.4% more applications.
Common, industry-standard acronyms (like CRM, B2B) are fine to use, we’re talking more about more technical, lesser-known terms here.
However, yawn-some cliches such as “low hanging fruit” and “spearheading” can probably be given a miss. They give off a stale, corporate and insincere vibe that I’m sure you’d rather steer clear of.
Need more convincing? Just take a look at some real-life examples of how not to advertise your open role.
Key takeaway: Keep job descriptions between 300-800 words and write in short, simple sentences to minimise reading burden. Consider using tools such as our FREE job description analysis tool to quickly check the readability of your job description.
Putting it all together - reach more candidates and improve diversity by optimising your job descriptions
By taking a data-driven, science-based approach to writing job descriptions, you should see a larger, more diverse set of candidates applying to your open roles.
Key findings from our own research:
49:51 ratio of male to female applications when job descriptions are neutral-coded.
1.4x more likely to hire a female with feminine-coded job descriptions.
10-15% increase in the volume of applications (as promised in the title).
One way to benefit fully from data-driven job descriptions is to try our FREE job description analysis tool (if you haven’t already!), but that’s not the only thing that Applied has to offer.
So you’ve managed to increase the diversity of applicants, and you’re intent on hiring the best candidate for the job, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or education.
But that’s the nature of unconscious bias - it often overrides your actual intent and causes you to make decisions based on implicit assumptions about a candidates’ skills and abilities.
That’s where we come in.
A recruitment platform that eliminates unconscious bias by design
Applied is the essential recruitment software for debiased hiring.
Purpose-built to make hiring empirical and ethical, our platform uses anonymized applications and skill-based assessments to identify talent that would otherwise have been overlooked.
Push back against conventional hiring wisdom with a smarter solution: book in a demo