I want you to visualise the assembly line in a factory.
Think Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Job descriptions were not needed for a long time in the history of working humans. The kind of jobs we did were limited, simple, and repetitive in nature. This was true for the first stage of industrialization. But as technology and automation have evolved, so have our jobs — which are now more creative, unstructured, and cover a wide variety of skill sets.
Neatly defined jobs enabled businesses to deliver consistent output and subsequently profits. It made sense to save an organization’s time by writing a job description before hiring. But that sensibility has now followed us even today when we are writing JDs for startups.
JDs have fallen prey to the dull monotony of convention. A checklist of skills, if you will. Irrespective of whether you’re hiring for a multinational company or an early-stage startup, a JD is one document you prepare without much thought.
But why are we fussing about JDs anyway?
As a candidate, do you relate to the act of looking for jobs on LinkedIn immediately after your friend posts their new job update?
You are surely aware of the time and effort required to actually go through with a job change; you read countless JDs, hoping something fits the bill. But seldom does a job description stay in your mind. In most cases, it is either mostly about the job title or the organization that you’re keen to work at.
But when you’re hiring at a startup, chances are that nobody even knows what your startup does, to begin with. Here is where JDs can play a huge make-or-break role.
But before we come to that, what does a JD do?
Not that you’re not aware but just for quick context, a JD reduces the headache for a person who’s tasked with the responsibility of hiring. Even though candidates are more or less aware of the tasks under a specific function, a JD serves as a filter. Logistically, having a defined JD helps when you’re hiring multiple people for multiple openings.
Because JDs reduce our headache, we tend to write them with the similar attitude we hold when we pop a pill. We look at them as a means to an end; a quick fix.
But the hidden costs of mindlessly popping pills and writing JDs poorly are far too many, and before we get down to those, let’s take a look at what well-written JDs accomplish.
Good JDs explain the problem to be solved.
To be fair, this is, strictly speaking, not a JD. But it’s better than a JD.
This is an excerpt from a journal that the current CTO Pratyush Mittal (also Stoa C2 Alumnus) of Screener.in had written, detailing the evolution of the code behind the product. A candidate who makes the effort of reading the document wouldn’t need a job description. They would immediately know if they’re cut out for the task.
What this JD accomplishes is that it lets the prospective candidate know the exact level of contribution their role will have to the job; what their job-to-be-done is.
Now, I am sure this level of detailing that’s possible for a tech role isn’t possible while writing job descriptions for all roles — say operations or project management roles. The daily nitty-gritty of these is far to complex to fit into a job description. But if you’re hiring at an early-stage startup, this is definitely a way to make a competent candidate feel useful enough to consider applying.
Good JDs signal company culture with simplicity, not mere abstractions.
The excerpt from CRED’s JD stands out from the usual hodgepodge of words passed off as mission statements about the organization.
The highlighted bit from the excerpt describes how trust is a major factor and how CRED looks for the same in the people they hire. It is a qualitative example of action speaking louder than words.
Good JDs provide clarity.
A business like Ikea doesn’t need to be this elaborate. They already have credibility.
This particular example of a JD stood out for me because it provides immense clarity on the expectations.
It is enough for me to know that the person writing it had a structure in mind and very selective points they wanted to convey. Before I even engage with the process of hiring I am able to gauge that the process will be well-organised and that I am to prepare accordingly if I’m interested.
Good JDs serve as a good pitch for the company.
Just as you expect a candidate to make a strong case for why they should be hired, make an equally strong case for why your organisation is worthy of being applied to.
This is especially true for startups.
For anyone making a switch to working at a startup, ample reassurance needs to be provided. Ultrahuman, a wearable health-tech startup does so quite tastefully.
Using a simple Notion page, the careers page on the website looks clean and well organized. Apart from being aesthetically sound, I was impressed to see that work culture, leave policies and benefits are details mentioned upfront. I have not seen such transparency before. And I am willing to bet that even though JDs are not shareable content, such a JD would be remembered by anyone who visits the site.
We don’t hear enough about the bad kind of JDs even though they’re all around us.
I suspect this is because the role being hired for is some associate-level position in the company and people being hired in that role are considered more or less expendable. Also, the power dynamic between the employer and employee is often lopsided, which may lead to employers taking demand for granted.
Badly written JDs create many loopholes with unclear communication that can be exploited later on. For example, a sufficiently vague JD that can fit multiple job roles at once allows the company to pile on all kinds of unrelated responsibilities on the employee in the future.
Now, I do understand that hiring is messy because sometimes roles cannot be defined too neatly.
However, I feel it is easier to be honest and communicate that the demands of the role may change and are not sacrosanct to the current version. It is not in your favour to write an ambiguous job description and then disappoint an employee’s work experience by making too many changes.
But I leave the decision of ambiguous vs. honest and clear descriptions entirely up to you. However, here are some clear DON’Ts that can create unpleasant situations while hiring.
The Clickbait JD
We did write about questionable clickbait ads in a previous Stoa Daily piece and feel that there is a parallel that can be drawn when we compare them to clickbait JDs.
In the image above, focus on the two blue rectangles. Do you see it?
I understand that a lot of applicants in the current environment will rush to click on anything with a product manager tag on it but to confidently do so on a job description is outright misleading.
If you go through the JD, you will actually realize that this is a role for a data analyst, not a product manager. The product manager tag is just there for clickbait. Consequently, the extent of clarification the hiring manager would have to provide around the actual role during interviews would only amount to a colossal waste of time for everyone involved.
The product manager tag is a brilliant hook and I can imagine that for a role that does not attract many candidates such a tactic may be required but it's so misleading, I’m not sure the business would still get any candidate that was actually good — one who wasn’t desperately looking to get hired.
The "Everything Under the Sun" JD
To be brutally honest, this JD reads like the waiter who parrots the menu at a restaurant when you ask them for recommendations.
And that waiter still does a better job than the person who wrote this JD.
It looks like all the tasks other employees needed help with were bundled into this.
A candidate in need of a job may be at the mercy of such questionable job descriptions and it is why I am writing this too. I would immediately think of this as a red flag because it shows complete lack of thought and consideration.
A social media specialist is not only managing social media channels, they’re also tasked with working on award entries and pitches (the role of a copywriter/brand strategist), pitching new ideas to clients (what a planner is supposed to do), design new brand campaigns… it feels like at least 3-4 roles in one.
The Word Salad JD
Yes, you’re hiring them again because you didn’t need them to be rockstars to begin with.
On twitter, I have noticed so many tweets which use the following phrases, terms when they put out a hiring post: rockstar, ninja, space traveller, wizard… sigh.
I worry that they weed out the competent candidates from the overtly confident ones. Additionally, I feel that these words don’t mean anything. They are unhelpful and gate keep those people from applying who don’t label their skills so confidently.
Here’s why this discussion matters, especially if you’re an early-stage startup.
I do understand that hiring is quite messy as a process. But early-stage companies that indulge in hiring in the same frame as established companies are playing a losing game.
For an established business, brand and credibility are usually not an issue.
An established business can get away with cookie-cutter JDs with a basic checklist of skills needed. They are not struggling when it comes to attracting candidates.
But for a young startup without a significant brand presence, credibility is the only necessary signal and they need as much of it as they can get.
At established companies, a JD has a list of the expectations, the skill and educational requirements ,and KPI’s. The role of an employee at such an established business is to be a polished cog that can keep the oiled machine running smoothly. Naturally, in a well-oiled machine, the cost of cogs is low. The machine doesn’t stop functioning if just two or three cogs are replaced.
This, however, is not the case for startups.
What you’re losing
Job roles at a startup are not neatly packed. This is the only reason why the JDs you write while hiring for a startup matter that much more.
Here's the intangible but important stuff people tend to miss out on when they think about JDs —
1. A JD is a great filter for quality.
Startups are far from being well-oiled machines. The quality of employees you hire in the early stages can make or break your startup. These are people who will determine your survival.
A JD is the first impression an applicant has of your work. And competent ones will be quick to opt-out as soon as they read a poorly written job description.
The flip side?
It will attract a lot of applicants because of unclear tasks or clickbait job titles. None of the applicants might actually make the cut and you will end up wasting time evaluating them or worse — interviewing them only to find out they can’t be hired.
You will not only lose time and extend the hiring time by a few months, but you might also end up alienating the employees who are currently working.
2. A JD is an underrated branding tool.
As a new entrant to the market, your every move reflects on the brand and its personality.
Job descriptions are often overlooked as ways to establish a brand.
What you stand for, your mission, your values, your culture, and the stage you provide for a person to exploit their potential — all of these can be showcased via a well-written and thoughtful job description. It may take a bit of effort to truly think about the copy and make it sound appealing but the kind of talent you manage to attract with such a JD will make it worth it.
3. A JD, good or bad, has many second-order effects.
You’re going to write a JD anyway, so might as well put in some time and effort to craft a good one? Because the time and energy you’ll save downstream by attracting quality talent will be worth it.
Think of writing JDs as important as crafting investor pitch decks, if not more. You care about getting funded and so you spend quality time and energy crafting the deck that will help you raise money.
But early employees at a startup are more crucial to its success than even investors, not to mention that even they hold sizeable equity in the company.
So if you truly care about growing your business, crafting a simple yet thoughtful JD will serve as a proxy to reflect that intention. And the second-order effects a JD can have on the success of your company may feel trivial at first, but can amount to huge differences later on.