We've all read the lists in job ads of the kinds of people employers like to hire: "self-starters", "strong communicators", "team players", "people that work hard and play hard", and by the end of the list we're still wondering what sort of person they actually require for the role.
Amy Tea, senior search consultant at Sheffield, says that ideally a job ad should have both the specific skills and experience a person needs, as well as information that will allow a job seeker to understand the motivational and cultural "fit" elements of the role and the organisation. "When writing job advertisements it's really important to be as clear as possible about both," she says.
Tea says HR departments will usually have a standard template and will write position descriptions and job ads for a variety of jobs using this template. "But this shouldn't be a sign that they are not credible documents," she says. "HR people are usually specifically trained in how to write job descriptions and job advertisements, and they are also ensuring that the company's values and culture are reflected in the documents."
Tea says it is common for a job seeker to read the first part of the job description, and believe the job is a great fit for them because they have those skills and traits, when in fact that may not entirely be the case.
"Job seekers sometimes forget to read the details of the 'must haves'. For example, being a general manager of a 10-person business does not mean that you have 'significant leadership experience of a comparable size and scale' for a CEO of a 500-person business."
If the description is not clear, Tea recommends calling the consultant who is listed on the advertisement, if this is possible. "Unfortunately," she says, "increasingly we see advertisements where there is not an option to speak with someone before applying, which is frustrating for job-seekers."
As far as the actual duties involved in the job, Tea says there can be a huge variance of quality in the description. Job duties are often written very broadly and in general terms, and it can be difficult to determine what the real tasks of the role might be. Tea says that when consultants are engaged to write a position description, they use an international tool to undertake a thorough job analysis. "This allows us to really hone in on what the actual tasks are. Of course, some roles are ambiguous by nature, and it may be more appropriate to concentrate on key performance indicators than on job tasks," she notes.
Tea says a problem can occur when job duties listed on job descriptions haven't been updated for some time and can turn out to be very different from the actual job expectations at the time hirers are seeking to fill the position. But, she says, standards vary hugely.
"A good recruiter will test this with the hiring managers and ensure the role is accurately portrayed in the job description. We are often helping our clients re-write job descriptions to ensure they fairly describe what the role is about. The competencies and skills described in the job description should be used throughout the selection process, from screening CVs to interviews and reference checking."
Tea says that often job descriptions have a "must have" section, as well as a "preferred experience" section. In order to get noticed and considered for the role, she says it's important to show what you have done and achieved, and in what context.
"When looking at experience we consider how it relates to the target job in terms of three things:
• Impact (how significant the experience was)
• Similarity (is it similar to the target job?)
• Timeliness (how long ago was this?)
"A CV and application letter should ensure we can evaluate your skills and experience for all the 'must haves', which means we have to understand the context in which you were working."
Getting the right referee to provide you with a reference is something job seekers should consider seriously, says Tea. "Your referees need to be able to speak about you in detail. They are ideally someone who you have reported to directly, who can speak about what you did in a role, what your achievements were, how you related to team members and your staff, and how you developed in the role.
"When a candidate is unable to give referees who have been direct managers, it is usually a red flag."
Tea says it's important to remember the recruitment consultant is paid by the hiring company, and his or her job is to find the best person for the company, rather than to represent the job seeker personally.