The Adler Group Articles

Ban Job Descriptions and Hire Better People

For the past 30 years I’ve been on a kick to ban traditional skills- and experience-based job descriptions. The prime reason: they’re anti-talent and anti-diversity, aside from being terrible predictors of future success.

Some naysayers use the legal angle as their excuse for maintaining the status quo.

To debunk this, I engaged David Goldstein, a preeminent legal authority from Littler Mendelson (the largest U.S. labor law firm) to compare the idea of using a performance-based job description to the traditional job description.

David has agreed to present his findings in a webcast on February 19. (I’ve included a summary of his white paper in one of my recent publications, and we’ll be happy to review his complete white paper upon request.)

A performance-based job description (aka performance profile) describes the work that a person needs to successfully accomplish during the first year on the job. Most jobs can be fully described in 6-8 performance objectives. These are in the form of “complete the detailed project plan for the new automated warehouse in 120 days.” This compares to the more traditional: “Must have 5+ years of logistics and supply chain management experience in high-volume consumer durables, plus 3 years of supervisory experience.”

This comparison alone should be enough to demonstrate to any recruiter the fallacy of using traditional job descriptions for finding and assessing talent. There are about 100+ other articles I’ve written for ERE over the last 10 years describing job descriptions as fundamentally flawed and counterproductive. Here’s are my top six (out of about 20) reasons why:

  1. While some level of skills is important, the “amount” written on a job description is arbitrary, misleading, and capricious. Certainly none were developed via a detailed job analysis. From a commonsense standpoint, it’s obvious if a person can do the work described in the performance profile they have exactly the level of skills needed. It’s what a person does with his or her skills that determines ability, not their absolute level. In fact, a person with the least amount of years of experience and the ability to learn quickly are the top performers who everyone wants to hire. Why would anyone in their right mind want to exclude this people from consideration?
  2. A performance objective that describes the work including the measures of success is equally as objective as some absolute level of skills and experiences. This is the legal aspect David will cover during the webcast. He’ll point out that performance profiles are not only more objective and better predictors of success, but they are also non-discriminatory.
  3. A recruiter who doesn’t know the real job requirements is quickly branded as a gatekeeper by any talented candidate. Knowing the job is essential for a recruiter, at least if they want to find, recruit, assess, and close passive candidates. Hiring managers also treat recruiters without real job knowledge as vendors, box-checkers, and paper-pushers. As a result these recruiters have little influence on who is actually interviewed and ultimately hired.
  4. Traditional job descriptions prevent diversity candidates, high-potential lighter candidates, returning military veterans, and highly qualified people with different but comparable results from being considered. All of these problems are eliminated using performance profiles.
  5. Attitude, cultural fit, team work, organizational skills, drive, and consistency are easy to assess using performance profiles. Measuring these without consideration of the performance requirements for the job and the underlying environment (manager’s style, resources, constraints, challenges, and pace) is an exercise in futility. For proof, consider why all of the competent people who have been hired later underperform.
  6. Top active and passive candidates are not looking for lateral transfers. This is exactly what a list of “must haves” implies. The only differentiator then becomes the compensation package. Using performance profiles as a benchmark, the interview can be used to demonstrate the “opportunity gap” between the candidate’s background and real job needs. This opportunity gap can then be used as a tradeoff for a big compensation increase.

This should be enough to convince anyone why traditional job descriptions should be banned if a company wants to hire more top people, expand their diversity hiring programs, hire some great people who bring a different mix of skills and experiences to the job, and implement a robust military veteran hiring initiative.

Posted in: Current Articles

Leave a Comment (9) ↓


  1. Gwen Gayhart July 13, 2014

    @Carol Price, part of the reason it’s a struggle to sway leaders is the unfortunate lack of influence that recruiters have with their hiring managers. Most are treated like administrative professionals rather than considered seriously as the advisors and partners they could be. Some of this is well-earned, mind you. Many recruiters stick faithfully to the tried-and-true, often because it’s all they know how to do.

    When I introduced this approach at a company I worked with recently, the hiring managers were surprisingly receptive because, deep down, they knew they weren’t landing the best candidates for their roles. Just as with any opportunity to influence, the key is really in focusing on “what’s in it for them”. Ask them why they are insistent about sticking with the current methodology in order to find out what’s important to them/what they fear, then explain to them how a Performance-based approach would better address those concerns/goals/fears.

    Speaking from experience, I can tell you that Performance-based Hiring works…period.

  2. Heather Gardiner May 16, 2014

    Finally ! I love this and I have always recruited candidates based on this method! Educating and influencing employers is what Recruiters need to spend more time on doing and you can ! Wish I was smart enough to write this

  3. Marjorie Liles March 11, 2014

    I totally agree with Carol with trying to convince executives to try something different.

    As a recruiter and HR professional, (and job seeker) I know how to use keyword searches. What I’m finding is most of the posting are using the same keywords. Differences in years of experience, prefer PHR/SPHR, office skills and maybe a particular payroll system preferred.

    Very rarely do I see ‘must have’. So what’s the point?
    It would be so insightful for the recruiter and job seeker to have that information/expectation about a position, making it stand out from all the rest. Knowing what it was going to take to be successful.

    That’s what an employer is looking for- a company filled with highly successful people!

  4. Craig Missell March 7, 2014

    A breath of fresh air, I say bravo!!

  5. Jeremy Leader February 27, 2014

    One problem with traditional job descriptions written in terms of “years of experience” is that they don’t distinguish between 5 years of valuable wide-ranging experience and 1 year of mediocre experience, repeated 5 times over.

    Another problem I saw in the early days of the Java programming language (mid 1990s) was that hiring managers wanted Java programmers with knowledge and maturity levels corresponding to 5 years of typical professional programming experience, so they wrote “5 years of Java experience” in the job description. The trouble was that Java had only been publicly available for a year or 2, and even the people who originally designed and implemented the language had only started about 5 years earlier!

  6. Steve Broberg February 19, 2014

    To answer Recruiting Animal’s question, there is a somewhat fuzzy distinction between a performance requirement and years of experience, mostly because they’re often thought of as the same thing. But think of the difference this way:

    Someone just saying they have the required 5 years of experience designing electric motors doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. However, if they were to say that in only 3 years, they had designed a wide range of motors with industry-changing breakthroughs, and was consequently put in charge of the entire design team ahead of more veteran designers, then that would be the person you’d want to hire. But not having the requisite 5 years of experience would have filtered this person out of the candidate pool.

    So by softening the rigid requirements, but asking for a proven track record of successful performance, you end up with much better candidates from which to choose, and they’re easier to choose from because the quality is tangible, not arbitrary.

  7. Recruiting Animal February 17, 2014

    How is a performance requirement different from asking for specific experience? For instance, experience designing electric motors vs must be able to design an electric motor?

    Also, years of experience is abstract and therefore arbitrary but it is not totally absurd either. There are rules of thumb that indicate that most people usually don’t have certain experience before a certain amount of time served.

  8. Carol Price February 13, 2014

    I would love to say as a Human Resources and Talent Acquisition professional that this is total crap, but I can’t!! I absolutely love the idea of getting rid of traditional job descriptions! In particular, for reasons #1, 4 and 6. However, as a daily practitioner of all things HR and recruiting, it is very difficult to convince executives and internal legal teams that non-traditional job descriptions just don’t cut it any more (and actually never have for passive job seekers).

    I would be brave enough to implement the more non-traditional means of describing positions, but how about some hints on how to convince folks at the executive level to buy in?

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