A Prescription for Job Descriptions

In a prior note, we referenced an HBR article detailing the downside to difficult employees. Real A-Team’s don’t have a Mr. T with a nickname of “Bad Attitude” on board. Bad attitudes are toxic. They infect the water of the workplace and one bad apple poisons the well equivalent to the efforts of two high performers. Tolerating toxicity is costly. Geoff Smart and Randy Street confirm the costs of bad attitudes writing in their book Who: The A Method for Hiring that “The consequences of hiring a bad attitude are worse than not hiring a good attitude.” A big part of our corporate culture is the sum of individual attitudes. Attitudes are contagious. A separate study has shown that working in the vicinity of a high performer can result in colleagues improving their productivity by 15%. The same research, showed the consequences of being in the neighborhood of a nuisance employee. Unfortunately, the toxic employee influenced those around them doubly to the downside dropping their productivity 30%. That’s almost a 50% swing in performance for those around poor performers relative to those working nearby winners. Mark Murphy invites us in One Hundred Percenters to “Repeat after me: ‘There’s no such thing as a high performer with a bad attitude.’” People would rather work short-staffed and carry an extra load than suffer besides a toxic performer.

Deep down we’ve felt the pain of hiring hiccups. We’ve made mistakes and put the wrong people on the bus. Our headaches too often follow an absence of intention and ownership. We either outsource preparation of job postings or default to copying what we see other similar companies using. Smart and Street write that “The first failure point of hiring is not being crystal clear about what you really want the person you hire to accomplish.” Murphy supports the importance of clarity writing, “You can’t read from a bad script and expect that you’re going to make great hires.” From job descriptions to job interviews, if you don’t have a deliberate process for your organization, your results will suffer.

With respect to typical characteristics of an “ideal candidate,” there are two types: function and fit. There’s the nuts and bolts of the job, the technical skills that reflect how someone functions. Then there’s the attitude or cultural fit with an organization. Typically, job descriptions lead with objective technical skills like industry licensing level, years of industry experience, and familiarity with industry software like a particular BMS system. These are relatively easy for a screener to sift through resumes and check off the boxes to filter candidates. Too much of what’s seen on job postings is generic fluff. Worthless words filled with vague, bland sentiment are offered. Consider these sought characteristics from three insurance job postings:

  • Is a driven self-starter that can work well in a team environment.
  • Experience achieving individual and team goals.
  • Works well within a team and independently.

Is there any difference between these? Are we clear on which is more important being a team player or being independent? In what specific way does one or both of these contribute to success in the role? Is it reasonable to expect someone to be equally good at both? Do we know what we mean by working well with others or independently mean? How will we evaluate someone against either of these objectives? In a separate example, if you seek to differentiate yourself and target conscientious and committed folk and include a sentence in your job description to the effect of “interviews will be held between 3am and 5am,” you may be surprised with what you get. Instead of hardcore, hard charging go-getters, you may be getting drunks looking for something to do after the bar shuts down. There’s a difference between being cute and being creative.

Earnest Shackleton’s job posting for his Antarctic expedition drew the interest of 5,000 people. It didn’t include one word related to technical skills. All it did was present the challenge while trying to capture the hearts and minds of those with the attitudes that would endure hardship. It was intended to inspire those that wanted to be part of something tough. It offered the exact opposite of what most job descriptions usually include. Postings for similar roles tend to be more similar than different. In a market where the industry unemployment rate is extremely low, employers have an added incentive to differentiate their job descriptions.

Smart and Street suggest that “Most organizations know how to hire for skill, but they have no test by which to assess attitude, and many have no concrete idea of what the attitudes they should be hiring for even are.” We should be seeking and screening for attitudinal aspects first and technical traits second. Smart and Street have heard repeatedly from clients over decades that “not evaluating cultural fit was one of the biggest reasons for hiring mistakes.” They succinctly state, “like a heart donor and recipient, there has to be a match or the body of the recipient will reject the new organ.” Even a greatly skilled employee won’t be able to showcase their skills if their personality is at odds with the prevailing personality of the organization in which they find themselves. As they say in sports, will beats skill. Attitude is primary, technical traits tertiary. Unfortunately, we view attitudinal traits as “soft skills.” It is worth considering that we may refer to a skill as “soft” not because we consider it unimportant, but because we can’t define it. The best at hiring don’t discount or discredit “soft” skills. They work hard to define what skills matter to them and then screen ruthlessly for these. If we change our perspective from soft to success, our soft skills become success skills. If we look at them this way, are we more motivated to try to figure out how to identify these?

The quest to attract great employees begins long before you need them. It starts with an internal investigation into determining your company’s culture. Ask employees and your leadership a question offered by Smart and Street, “What adjectives would you use to describe our culture?” From here, get even more specific and explore two sets of traits. Which attitudes predict success and which predict problems. Smart and Street suggest asking leaders in your company, “In your experience, what separates our great attitude people from everyone else in the organization?” What components of your culture contribute? They go on to encourage asking, “Think of someone in the organization who truly represents the culture. This would be our poster child for having the right attitude for our organization. Could you tell me about a time this person did something that really exemplifies having the right attitude? It could be something big or small, but it should be something that made an impression on you.” These questions help capture both the attitudes that matter to your organization as well as to craft a definition that describes what these attitudes look like. We’re also asking the inversion of these questions in order to screen for those we don’t want to be part of our team. Who were bad past employees? What attitudes did they possess? How did they show those problem behaviors? When probing for problem behaviors it’s okay to ask colleagues for descriptions of events without naming names. This may lead to more candid responses.

We want to attract those that have the capability to make a constructive contribution to our organizations. We don’t want to cast a wide, broad net. We want to cast more directed hooks into the sea of hiring. In order to do this well, we need to know what attitudes have proven themselves productive in our organizations. Before we include a trait, characteristic, or requirement on our postings, we need to have objective reason to believe both that we can define objectively what this trait looks like and that it contributes to what we’re after. If you’re struggling to get consensus on this, consider creating a list of attitudes and ask leaders in the organization to rank these in order of importance. Is there consensus on a top three list of attitudes? Here’s a list of attitudes you could consider trying to rank and determine a top three for your organization. Integrity, initiative, quick learner, hard working, conscientious, friendly, adaptable, enthusiastic, coachable, team player, reliable, competitive, driven. You get to select three. Which ones?

The framework of the 3C’s of Character may help identify the kinds of attitudes that we’re targeting. Attitudes that reflect competence, commitment, and coachability could be targets. Once you’ve settled on a top three and a bottom three list of attitudes that deliver success and predict problems, the goal is to develop definitions of how these attitudes show themselves in your organization. For example, integrity may be defined as “Transparent. Consistency in words and actions. Does what is right, not what is easy. Trustworthy may become: “Won’t cut corners. Makes decisions based on long term impact over short term.” If initiative is a desired attitude, a definition developed could be, “Understands how to WIN. Can identify “What’s Important Now.” Or, “comfortable acting without constant direction.”

As Street and Smart note, “For all the infinite variety of personalities and attitudes out there, you can still roughly categorize people into two groups: the ‘problem bringers’ and ‘problem solvers.’” Our hiring boils down to trying to filter for two kinds of people, those that create problems versus those that solve them. Our job descriptions are the starting point for capturing those that solve problems. We’re trying to separate the DUDs from those that DID. DUDs dial up drama whereas those that DID dial it down. In Be a Zero we learned that true team players diluted more drama than they delivered. There are those that are easy to work with and those that are difficult to get along with. There are those that get in the way and those that clear the path. Identifying our desired attitudes and undesirable ones helps us sort for these two groups. Another way of looking at it is you’re trying to cast a net to capture two kinds of crazies. Foremost, those that are crazy about the same things that your business is crazy about and that you want to become part of your crew as well as those that are like those you wish you never knew which become those you avoid.

The desired attitudes and definitions become the lead on the job description. When we begin our job descriptions leading with desired attitudes we start to subtly signal two things. First, that we’re different than other companies. Second, we value attitude more than technical skills. A good job description is an essential ingredient in the recipe of recruiting. It is a piece of the puzzle that connects recruiting to hiring, onboarding, training, and performance management. Job Postings are the link between your organization and the outside world. They are the magnet used to draw in the desired applicant. Your ability to attract appropriate candidates is directly tied to your ability to craft quality job postings.

Remember, to attract high performers, you need to be attractive to them. Yes, this process is work. Yes, it takes time, effort, and energy. None of it is easy. There’s a reason the best employers attract the best employees. Consider a quote of J. Paul Getty, “The employer usually gets the employees he deserves.” Top notch employers invest effort to put their process in place. What they are doing is intentional and follows their clearly identified needs. They recognize that whatever costs incurred in terms of expense and time to get hiring correct are worth it as the costs associated with poor hires are worse. High turnover rates are expensive. Poor hiring decisions lead to worse productivity not better. Putting the right people in the right places in our businesses is one of the most important responsibilities for management and leadership.

Great employers don’t develop sound hiring practices just for fun. They’re doing it because they recognize and believe that their employees matter. They want to commit to their staff. They want their staff to be a part of the business for the long term. At the end of the day, great employers attract and select great employees not because of luck but because of a proactive, reliable, and repeatable process they have intentionally created.