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John Cashmore

Davies & Robson

Head of Supply Chain Executive Search

Read more about John Cashmore

Job specifications – too many boxes to tick?


It’s easy to see how it happens – conversations over time, stakeholders consulted, various vested interests expressing opinions and an internally focussed view of the tasks and priorities. The output?

Three pages of very detailed minimum requirements of the ideal candidate’s experiences, knowledge and technical skills. By preparing the ultimate corporate wish list, rather than identifying key selection factors, the company almost inevitably places itself in an impossible position, with a flawed recruitment process.

A reassessment, though not a rejection, of such detailed technical job descriptions could well be in the interests of sourcing and selecting the best candidate. While there is a minimum level of relevant experience required for senior leadership roles in any sector, the core skills and behaviours of candidates can often get lost in focussing on more specific requirements.  The key is to understand which broader characteristics and experiences may be readily transferred to the particular skills that are required for the role.

This immediately opens up the pool of suitable candidates and increases the likelihood of successful recruitment.

How many lines of a job description could be replaced by the requirement for an individual that, although perhaps not having all of the prescribed experiences, may be more driven, focussed, intelligent or people orientated?

The success of appointing individuals without some of the technical requirements for a role is evidenced by the numerous internal appointments that we see. These tend to be made on prior knowledge of that individual’s generic skills and personality, giving confidence in their ability to take on the new role. While this is in sharp contrast with the stringent stipulations made of an ‘outsider’, these internal moves, based on ‘gut feel’ or the individual’s general reputation, are often successful.

Consider challenging your job specification. Identify those qualifications or industry experiences that are really necessary. In order to open up the recruitment pool to a greater number of talented people it may be possible to dilute some requirements, rather than omit them altogether. A requirement for someone to have experience of, say, the insurance industry, may be a necessary demand in some positions – but in others, exposure to broader financial services could provide the industry knowledge required, and significantly increase the pool of candidates.

Of course, it depends on the role – the requirements may all be essential. It is, though, worth keeping an eye on your job description, and during the hiring process, for the unnecessary requirement that has unwittingly reduced your pool of potential candidates by a factor of 100.

Bear in mind the individual who might do the job. They must not only be suited to it, but also want it.

Just as the technical needs can turn into a shopping list, the soft, character traits required can also inadvertently morph into an unlikely personality. Can you picture the individual who would relish the range of demands of the position? Is it realistic to expect that the analyst suited to 90% of a role will also have the personality to sell the solution to a customer?

Ask who would do this job: What are their skills? What drives them? Why would they do it? The last question also needs to be addressed in context. Your job description will almost certainly be suited to someone at a particular point in their career – ‘Why your business?’ and ‘Why now?’ can also be worth a sense check.

Review your specification – don’t tear it up. If you visit a hospital you, of course, expect to see a doctor not a highly qualified lawyer. But are there requirements that you should reconsider? If an otherwise strong candidate can make up a missing skill within three months, they may well be the better prospect for the longer term future of your business.

2 Responses

  1. Recessionary response

    There is nothing new in this although, with more than 20 years experience working with a range of companies in assessment and other people issues, I have noticed a slight change as a result of the recession. Companies have become more risk adverse and feel, as it's an employer's market, they can pick and choose who to employ. As a result, they have generally become more prescriptive and one might even say, more risk adverse. And it was ever thus. I don't think it's the job descriptions but the thinking behind them. Well written job descriptions can enable role clarity which is positively associated with higher levels of job satisfaction, meaning and autonomy. But they have to be well written.

  2. I’m frequently amazed

    when reading many job adverts, becaue they're not actually looking for someone who could do the job – they're looking for the person who has the job now.

    They're looking for a very narrow skillset definition, which would probably only be possessed by someone who is already in exactly that role.  And if they're already in that role, what are the enhancements that would make them come and do it for you, as opposed to staying right where they are?

    I can't recall the last time I saw a job that offered training.  I can't remember the last time I saw a job advert that said – if you're 80-90% of the way there, we're interested in talking to you, as you may have other qualities/experience we haven't thought of, and you might bring something new and surprising to the role.  It's so often – you will match every criteria down to the colour of your shoes, or we won't even look at your CV.

    I fear we're going to end up with offices and workplaces full of clones, full of people who are genuinely interchangeable, because we don't care if there's anything special or wonderful, or unusual about them, as long as they have the necessary experience to slot into the job with no pick-up time, and no training.

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John Cashmore

Head of Supply Chain Executive Search

Read more from John Cashmore

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