Talent Acquisition Workplace

4 Steps to the Perfect Job Spec

If you work in recruitment, you’ve probably seen thousands of job specs, in all different shapes and sizes. I’ve seen job specs ranging from five sentences, to five pages long. I’ve seen job specs that range in tone from funny and clever, to dry and dull. Furthermore, just as is the case with the CV, job specs have a distinct language of their own. A job isn’t a job: it’s an “exciting opportunity”. Work takes place in a “dynamic environment”; a description that applies to any organisation – can you name a workplace that has never changed? A well-written job spec is a real rarity, and many people fail to understand their value to a company.

However, the job spec is often a candidate’s first introduction to a company, which is why a well-written and comprehensive job spec is crucial to attracting the best talent. Consider this: if a poor-quality CV will diminish a candidate’s interview prospects, then won’t a poor-quality job spec diminish your ability to source great candidates? There are three key things that every job spec has to do to be effective:

1) Describe the Role:

It is important that the candidate knows what they are going to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Be honest; there’s no point lying. Is the candidate going to be spending 90% of their time doing data entry? Then tell them. It will save you trouble in the long run, and hopefully help keep turnover down by only attracting candidates who are happy to do data entry. Employers may be unwilling to define the role too clearly, because it is often hard to list every single duty. The good news is, this doesn’t matter. As long as you are clearly describing the duties that will take up at least 80% of the candidate’s time, this will be clear enough, and will give them enough information to know if they can do the job.

The other advantage of clearly defining the responsibilities of a role is that it empowers the candidate to know what they have responsibility over. If you give them a very loosely defined job spec, then this can be a hindrance. After all, organisations are complex political entities, with little kingdoms, spheres of influence, rivals, alliances, winners, and losers. If the candidate doesn’t know what they are responsible for, they are less likely to be proactive, for fear of stepping on someone’s toes, or violating some unwritten rule. If the candidate knows precisely what they are responsible for, then they are empowered to make decisions and improvements, because they know they have the right to do so.

2) Sell the Company and Role

A job spec isn’t just an HR document, it is also an important marketing tool. Tell the candidate what they will gain, by making it explicit. e.g. “YOU will join the team responsible for this industry-leading product”, “YOU will receive full training on this software”, “YOU will be given responsibility for your own projects”, “YOU will work in a fun and informal environment”, “YOU will be eligible for great benefits and a bonus scheme”. Make it about what the candidate will get out of it.

There has been a well-acknowledged shift in the way we work in the West. Manufacturing and manually intensive work has massively declined, whilst the knowledge economy has exploded. Many of the jobs we do today rely on knowledge and information, and there may be no one ‘right’ way to do a job. This has led to a huge increase in jobs which now typically require a vocational degree to perform, such as software development, marketing, journalism etc. Knowledge is something that is hard for companies to keep, because most studies agree that only 20% of a company’s knowledge will exist in an explicit, written-down form. The rest walks out of the door every evening, as it only exists in your employee’s minds. Because knowledge is a company’s most valuable asset, the balance of power has shifted: it isn’t enough to merely offer employment if you want access to a candidate’s knowledge; you need to demonstrate why they should want to work for you. Many employers get this; the ones that don’t are the ones that will struggle to recruit.

3) Describe the Candidate:

There are two main pitfalls to avoid here. Firstly, you need to be reasonably honest about your corporate culture, and what kind of person would fit. There is a depressing tendency, when describing desired characteristics, to use almost meaningless words like “pro-active”. Try to explain why the required traits are important. For example, “because you will be working in a large team, you must be comfortable working with others”, or, “our corporate brand requires our employees to be smart and professional at all times”. This should help deter candidates who would not be a good cultural match, whilst attracting those who are.

The other pitfall is getting greedy with the ’technical’ skills needed. This is something particularly common in software development, where hiring managers will sling on almost every technology imaginable. A good way to get around this is to split your requirements into two sections; essential, and desired. Your essential skills should only be those likely to be needed on a daily basis. Any other skills, such as infrequently used skills, or just skills which would be ‘nice to have’, should go under desired. Even then, don’t be unrealistic. Every skill you list which a candidate doesn’t possess is going to decrease their likelihood of applying, even if they would otherwise be a great match for the role. Focus on the bare essentials to ensure maximum coverage.


It has been said that all job interviews ultimately ask three questions; can you do the job, will you do the job, and what do you need to do the job. This is at the heart of the Ability, Motivation and Opportunity (AMO) framework found in HR. How you arrange your job spec is up to you, but it should do each of the three things above, as each section has a specific question to answer. The role description should tell the candidate if they can do the job. Selling the company and role should answer why the candidate will do the job. And the candidate description should answer what the candidate needs to do the job. Make no mistake: a well-written, honest job spec will massively affect the quality of the candidates you attract. What are your best tips for writing a great job spec?

By Andrew Fairley

Andrew Fairley has recently completed an MA in Management with The York Management School, focusing on strategy, innovation, HR, and organisational behaviour, and has just begun a PhD investigating the UK internet startup industry. Prior to this, he spent 2 years as a Recruitment Consultant, working with clients from SMEs to blue-chips, sourcing IT staff.  You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.