Despite a vast literature on talent management, staff engagement and retention, the public sector still struggles with the basics of crafting an effective job description. A trawl through government job sites, combined with observations from hundreds of job descriptions I've analysed over the years, has revealed many unhelpful practices. Despite all the rhetoric about "applying business enablers" and "pulling human capital levers" to improve recruitment practices, the basics of job descriptions elude attention.
A job description is a functional text designed to attract interest from potential applicants, inform readers so they can decide to apply, and entice action from those interested and qualified. It seems simple enough. Yet several practices work against this goal.
Part of the difficulty is that a job description can serve a dual, before-and-after role: it can also guide performance agreements and learning and development once a person starts work. It would be far better to stick to Victorian government advice that a job description "informs applicants about a role and promotes the organisation as a great place to work".
Attention to 10 practices would improve these descriptions.
Relying solely on a job description for insight into a role can be a risky strategy for applicants. I've seen job ads that refer to specific skills and duties that are absent from the duties and criteria lists in the job description. One recent advertisement identified a job as part-time yet no mention was made of this in the job description, which listed 10 duties, including "performs other duties as required". While advertisements are different texts to job descriptions, there needs to be consistency on critical information.
State governments are becoming more savvy about the contextual information they provide. NSW job descriptions provide details of key challenges, key relationships – internal and external – with a list of who people are and why the relationship is needed. Role dimensions cover decision-making, reporting line, direct reports and budget/spending delegations. All this information is invaluable to an applicant in understanding the job they are applying for. In contrast, few Australian Public Service jobs give this information, and some provide only scanty lists of duties and criteria.
Many roles need to attract people who are contextually intelligent; people who understand the nature of dynamic and ambiguous interactions, and the interdependencies among and between people, ideas, values, experiences, culture, alliances and organisations.
Yet it's difficult to write a tailored response if there is little contextual information provided. The risks are that people apply who shouldn't and those who do make inaccurate assumptions, thereby misaligning their application. More information leads to more informed discussions with contact officers and more accurately tailored applications.
"Complex" is a commonly used modifier in job descriptions. Regardless of seniority, it seems applicants must be able to deal with "complex problems", "complex policy issues", "complex stakeholder arrangements" and "complex systems".
Complexity is a factor differentiating job levels in the APS. In the revised APS work level standards, APS1 tasks are described as basic and routine, APS2 as straightforward, APS4 as of moderate complexity and executive level 2 tasks have a high level of complexity.
Complexity is fraught with myriad interpretations and little academic consensus regarding exactly what it means. The literature on complexity points out that "complicated" and "complex" problems are different, and require different strategies and tools that are largely not interchangeable. For example, building a highway is complicated, whereas managing urban traffic congestion is complex. Leaders must be able to discern whether the challenges they face involve complicated programs or initiatives or whether they are more closely involved with a complex challenge.
Job descriptions do not make this distinction between complicated and complex, and I have yet to come across one that refers to "simple" problems, even though some jobs involve them. Even complex problems can include both simple and complicated components. An accurate, contextually rich job description would take a more nuanced approach to complexity.
Some job descriptions contain an excessive list of duties, even for senior roles. My "best" example is a job description that listed 24 items. A focus on the role's essentials, combined with contextual information, is of greater use than extensive lists of task specifications.
The number of selection criteria can be problematic. For example, one Victorian university listed 11 criteria plus four desirables. With no word length specified, an application covering 15 items imposes hefty burdens on the writer and the reader. I've also seen examples of capabilities with 10 sub-points and no indication as to whether an applicant is meant to cover all these details.
In developing ever more detailed capability frameworks, jurisdictions are doing themselves and applicants no favours. The revised NSW capability framework has 16 capabilities applicable to all jobs, plus another four for those managing staff. Selection panels are expected to assess all of these.
I've seen job descriptions that list agency capabilities, APS capabilities as well as job-specific selection criteria. The relationship between these lists was unclear, nor was it clear which list the applicant was meant to consider in their application.
Many job descriptions do not include details of what the application response requirements are. It's not until you reach the online system that you find out what you need to write about and how many words to use. Surely this could be included in the job description.
Where instructions to candidates are included, they can be unclear or inadequate, leaving uncertain as to whether a statement of suitability for the role is required or whether responses to criteria are needed.
One practice used in job descriptions is to group job requirements under headings, such as skills, experience and personal qualities. Yet what lands in the "personal qualities" list are often skills, such as: interpersonal, liaison and communication skills; ability to investigate and solve problems; or ability to supervise and train staff. Recruiters should either drop this category or give more thought to what qualifies as a personal quality.
Last year, I suggested the Public Service Commission's guide, Cracking the code, was well beyond its use-by date as it was of no help to applicants trying to write responses to capabilities. Agencies are still suggesting applicants read this document, even for jobs where an expression of interest is asked for – a subject on which Cracking the code is silent.
The process of retaining staff starts the moment a job advertisement attracts attention. Why not include information about opportunities for development and career progression in the job description? Applicants need to see a potential career path, understand what role their manager will play in their professional development, and have some sense of how a move will benefit them.
What the 10 practices above boil down to is care. Care in crafting a job description to ensure consistency and which provides information that is clear and relevant, so applicants can make an informed judgement about the opportunity and embark on an application process with ease.
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