How to write better job descriptions

The WhoCo guide to writing effective, honest, and compelling job descriptions.

Before you create a job description, you need to know the job. Seems obvious, but job descriptions are rarely as useful as they can be. At best, this means not hiring efficiently. At worst, it can lead to unintended discrimination and even lawsuits. Let's go over the steps to building job descriptions that are consistent, fair, and will set up your new hires for success.

First, identify job objectives and tasks

Start by laying out objectives and task statements for the role. Objectives are outcome-oriented: major accomplishments you’d expect from a successful candidate. Task statements are descriptions of the behaviors and activities used to carry out the objectives.

  • Task statements capture what someone does. Minimally, this requires a verb and an outcome (e.g., "Herd all of our cats").
  • When possible, link the task to measurable objectives (e.g., "Herd 20 cats per hour"). Focus on the significant tasks a job requires; trivialities and minor components are less important.
  • If applicable, reference any software, materials, equipment, or tools that the new hire will use.

Systematically identify a job's tasks. Putting effort into a rigorous job analysis (and the resulting job descriptions) doesn't just help you hire well. It also provides a foundation for equitable compensation, training and development programs, and effective performance management.

Then use the job tasks to define your ideal applicant

Connect objectives and task statements to relevant worker characteristics by identifying the knowledge, abilities, and skills—or KSAOs—required to carry them out. The “O” stands for Other, and includes things like education or special certifications such as Certified Professional Accountant, Registered Nurse, or Professional Engineer.

Map out your worker characteristics on paper. First, list your objectives for the role, then divide the rest of the sheet into two columns. List on the left side all the task statements or what someone does to accomplish the objectives. Across from those, write the knowledge, skills, or abilities (KSAOs) needed to do that task well. You have now connected your task statements to relevant worker characteristics. Hang on to these. You need them for the next step.

Sample tasks and KSAs for a Software Engineer

  1. Develop new application features; KSAOs: Fluent in HTML, CSS, and Javascript frameworks such as Angular and React. Able to articulate major product features and functionality and their business relevance
  2. Review and optimize code of peers; KSAOs: Able to evaluate and prioritize working out bugs and enhancing existing code
  3. Follow agile process methodology; KSAOs: Able to run effective scrum meetings and resolve blocks

Search for your role on O*NET if you want to nerd out on task statements and KSAOs (O*NET is a collection of occupational data sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor). For most jobs, O*NET will suggest t ask statements under the headings “Tasks,” “Work Activities,” and “Detailed Work Activities.” Find KSAOs under their respective headings. There’s a lot there to help you. Go nuts.

Last, put it all together and add some color

You did the hard part; now it's time to put it all together. 

First, list out relevant job details such as location, whether the role is remote, whether travel or odd working hours are required, etc. Include worker eligibility/citizenship requirements and information on how to apply.

Next, list objectives, task statements as "job duties," and KSAOs as "desired knowledge, skills, and abilities" (feel free to rename headings). Bonus points for working from your outlined objectives to define goals for what you hope the candidate to accomplish after 60 days, six months, and one year. You may also want to add a disclaimer that the job description does not cover all required activities, duties, or responsibilities.

Review for transparency as you round out the job description: make sure you communicate what you’d like to know if you were applying for the role. We recommend covering pay and benefits, reporting structure, development opportunities, and company mission, vision, and values. Candidates will want to know more about your company, especially with early-stage startups with no name recognition or reputation. Describe what you do, your founding story, money raised, and your company culture (steer away from bro-ey language that may turn people off). Craft your organizational info so you can re-use it across roles.

Ensure you hire based on actual job requirements by providing prospects with a Realistic Job Preview (RJP). In short, avoid only pitching the fun parts of the role in your job description. Be clear about the less savory aspects of the work as well. Communicating a transparent, realistic preview of the role helps you avoid the costly mistake of overselling the job to a candidate who won't stay in the position. We're all about building your applicant pool, but fit matters too. You want people to self-select out of the hiring process if they aren't suitable for the role.