Last year I did a popular talk for wiredsussex where I explained how personal and job specifications were not job adverts and should not be used as such. The analogy I used was you don’t sell someone a BMW by showing them the manual, you sell them the dream of the “ultimate driving machine”. This week I was discussing this point with a client. We were discussing how despite almost uniform agreement of the companies in the room for that talk almost all of them were still using job specifications as job adverts. This is lazy at best but we went further to discuss how it might be worse than lazy, it may be discriminatory.

In recruitment, we work with job specifications all the time. A personal specification is a list of all the required skills and experiences a person should have to be successful in the role you are looking to fill. These documents are inherently aspirational. They list the ideal candidate, the perfect candidate. We are always striving to find the perfect candidate however we almost always compromise on this list. We desire certain skills over others and also we often forgive candidates for a lack of skills and experience if we feel they are a better fit for the team. Personal specifications are the exhaustive list of thing the hiring manager desires in the ideal candidate – this is not always realistic or even achievable or even practical.

There is a much-quoted survey conducted by McKinsey at Hewland Packard that suggested men were happy to apply for roles where they only matched 60% of the skills and experience required whereas women would only apply for a role where they had 100% of the skills and experience. This finding is quoted in Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean in” and gained popular support. If this is true then using an exhaustive aspirational list of personal skills and experiences required are we dissuading female candidates from applying. Obviously, we have requirements for any role that are necessary however so often these specifications go beyond whats necessary and list the “nice to have” or “desired” skills. If you are advertising for a specific specialist role and the role requires specific specialist skills then all qualified candidates will have a baseline of specific skills. The best candidates will have the additional “nice to have” or “desired” skills so why include them in the advert when you may dissuade excellent candidates from applying as they don’t have all the listed additional skills yet still may be the best candidate by their advanced level of the base skills or their better team for or additional skills they bring that are not even listed.

The quoted McKinsey research is debated and the fact that the study was a privately held, HP piece of research means no one externally has seen how that figure was evidenced but I have asked several of my clients and candidates about this issue and it seems to resonate. The client who I met this week is a senior level executive within the financial service market who admitted that she had often not applied for roles because although she had most of the skills and experience required she did not have 100%. Separately I had a very specific piece of feedback on this issue whilst working as an on-site recruitment manager for a development studio. The studio works in innovative technologies and was looking to hire a new developer for the team. I took the spec down from the hiring manager and used a female developer from the team to sense check the job spec as the hire was supposed to be exactly her role as part of team growth. The feedback I had was “I wouldn’t apply for that role” when I asked why it was because the line manager had added elements about VR technology in the spec that she did not have experience of yet. VR is an aspirational area for the team to expand into but the requirement of the role was for an android developer and required no VR experience at all yet here we had an android developer not prepared to apply for her own job as she felt she wasn’t qualified for one element of the spec (which despite my advice they used as an advert!).

I appreciate that clients are always looking to aspire for better talent coming in than perhaps exists in their own team and that we are always looking to expand the skills we have as a business via our recruitment but the job advert should be about attracting an inclusive mix of applicants. If you are using specifications as your job adverts perhaps you are dissuading women from applying – why take that risk?

What Can You Do Now to Prevent Discrimination? 

  • Stop using specifications as job adverts – immediately – its poor at attracting talent if nothing else.
  • Write an advert separately from the specifications only listing the absolutely essential skills – you can vet candidates from their CV. At the advert stage, you want to attract as wide an audience as possible.
  • When people apply or register interest in the role send them a full specification to them in return making it explicitly clear what skills are essential and which would be helpful additions.
  • Of the qualified candidates who express interest and received a full specification who didn’t continue the process – why?
  • Ask qualified candidates for feedback – what are their perceived weaknesses against the spec – discuss with them how this affects the role.

Notice I used the term “qualified candidates” – we are saying that the candidate has the baseline skills required for the role, the essentials.