For many hiring teams, hiring feels like a well-worn path. Post a job opening, collect applications, and screen for promising candidates. Every opening receives the same treatment.
Sticking to traditional recruiting workflows can often do more harm than good. By repeating outdated language or by emphasizing credentials over skills, companies may miss some of the best talent available among their applicant pool. Or they may deter potentially outstanding performers from applying at all.
Revitalizing your applicant pool means updating your traditional recruiting tactics.
Bias May Lurk in Your Job Descriptions
Bias pervades ordinary language use, so it’s not surprising to find it in job descriptions. Thinking carefully about word choices and the core skills or functions of the role can help reduce bias, which in turn can reduce the number of otherwise qualified candidates who self-select out of the application process.
Language biased toward or against gender stereotypes appears in a number of job descriptions and can harm a company’s ability to improve its gender diversity. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C. Kay write that “gendered wording commonly employed in job recruitment materials can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations.”
The authors examined the effects of job descriptions that used words commonly associated with male stereotypes. They found that the more of these masculine-associated words a job description used, the more likely study participants were to assume more men held those jobs, regardless of the participant’s own gender. Female study participants also tended to find these jobs less appealing.
Identifying biased language in job descriptions can be challenging. For example, human resources staff at Buffer were baffled as to why only about two percent of their candidates for developer roles, or what Buffer called “hacker” positions, were women.
Originally, Buffer chose the title “hacker” because it seemed inclusive and descriptive. On discovering it was driving away otherwise qualified candidates, however, the company began to discuss how to make its hiring language more inclusive, writes Courtney Seiter, former director of people at Buffer.
Bias can also creep into job descriptions, including skill descriptions, in ways that push away otherwise qualified candidates with disabilities. MIT’s ADA Compliant Language for Job Descriptions guide recommends that creators of job descriptions “focus on the essential functions of the job, not the ways they are currently or customarily performed.”
For example, a job posting for student financial aid advisors that uses language like “must talk to students about their financial aid needs” may be unappealing to candidates who struggle with verbal language, even if they are highly qualified to assist students with financial aid. A posting that instead expresses this requirement as a need to communicate accurately and effectively, regardless of medium, gives candidates the information they need to see themselves as a potential fit for the role without sacrificing the core communication skill or competency required to do the job well.
One way to determine if bias lurks in your job postings or descriptions is to examine the makeup of your existing team. “An organization with a homogeneous employee base is more than likely biased—even if it is unconsciously biased—in the way it operates,” says Carlos Ledo, assistant general counsel and human resources consultant for HR solutions provider Engage PEO.
Even Unbiased Job Description Language Can Turn Away Candidates
Mindful attention to hidden biases in language use is necessary to create more inclusive job descriptions that encourage candidates to apply. Yet addressing language is only one step in creating job descriptions that draw candidates in.
Job descriptions overloaded with qualifications or requirements may skew your candidate pool as well, even if the terms used aren’t expressed in biased language. For example, one study found that men tend to apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, while women apply only for jobs where they meet 100 percent of the qualifications, writes Tara Sophia Mohr in the Harvard Business Review.
Insider language or traditional recruiting jargon can also turn candidates away, even if the words themselves don’t read as stereotypically aligned with a particular group or identity. Too much company-specific language can make a job posting feel like it’s only looking for those who already know the company’s internal conversation and culture, which can alienate qualified candidates.
“Job seekers reading descriptions are usually still in research mode, so feeling like they don’t speak the language of a company makes it easier for them to cross that company off the list,” writes Hannah Fleishman at HubSpot.
Job seekers don’t spend much time deciding whether they can navigate a qualifications list, either. In a 2013 study, researchers used eye-tracking technology to measure how long job seekers looked at job descriptions and what they read. The study found that, on average, job seekers spent less than one minute on a job description before dismissing it as a poor fit, Lauren Weber wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
In addition to crafting unbiased language, focus on creating clear, concise job descriptions that describe the core skills essential to the role. Avoid cute or technical language in favor of plain explanations of the work required and the skills the applicant will need to do the job.
Finally, update job descriptions regularly. “Job descriptions are most inclusive when they evolve as the job changes,” says David Fitton, managing director at Excelerator Consulting. Regular updates give an organization the opportunity to adjust language and to ensure the job description accurately communicates the core skills and functions of the role.
Prioritizing Credentials Over Skills Can Cost You
Another way many job descriptions discourage otherwise qualified or promising applicants is by including requirements for particular credentials, such as college degrees.
Many employers like degree requirements because they believe this requirement is a convenient shorthand for a number of important job-related skills. Requiring degrees, however, overlooks whether degree-holding applicants actually learned the skills necessary for the role, and pushes away candidates who have the skills but not the credential.
In a move to create a workforce as diverse as the general population, the federal government recently began deleting college degree requirements from its job postings, focusing instead on skills and competencies, writes Michael Brickman, a former senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Education.
One way to jumpstart the move from credentials-based hiring to skills-based hiring is to rewrite job descriptions where the skills required are clear. For example, writes Brickman, the federal government began with grantmaking positions, where the college degree requirement seemed divorced from the skills required for the job. Even degree-holding employees were sent for additional training on the technical requirements of federal grant writing.
“After the executive order, agencies could open the door to individuals without college degrees who were willing to get [federal grant writing] training,” writes Brickman. A skills-based approach to hiring sought people who had skills necessary for the position; the previous degree requirement sought people who had completed college, but did not look at whether they had the needed skills.
Traditional recruiting language in job descriptions and time-worn credential requirements are familiar to many human resources professionals. Because they’re familiar, they may feel like an effective way to communicate the needs of the role. To job-seekers, however, these words, phrases, and requirements can be discouraging. They can and do drive away job-seekers who have the skills necessary to do well in the role and who would make a strong addition to the organization.
To grab these candidates’ attention, employers will need to rethink their approach to job descriptions. Clear, unbiased language that focuses on core skill requirements can help employers build an applicant pool full of the skills and drive needed to succeed.
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