Rewording the job ad

Emphasizing what a role offers can attract better-quality candidates than simple job requirements

Listing job requirements — such as skills, education or responsibilities — is a given in pretty much all job ads. But if employers want to attract star candidates, this might not be the best approach. Instead, emphasizing the total rewards on offer could be a better solution, according to a study.

Most ads focus almost exclusively on demands-ability (D-A) fit or job requirements, with very little information about what can be offered to the applicant, according to Derek Chapman, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary, and co-author of  Does Emphasizing Different Types of Person-Environment Fit in Online Job Ads Influence Application Behavior and Applicant Quality? Evidence from a Field Experiment.

D-A statements include:
•“The successful applicant will have excellent written and verbal communication skills.”

•“Job incumbents will be required to show initiative in prioritizing tasks and carrying them through to completion.”

•“The successful applicant will enthusiastically support and co-operate with others to develop effective solutions.”

But job ads that focus on “needs-supplies” (N-S) fit  — what the organization can supply to meet an applicant’s needs — can have better results, found the study, based on responses from 991 applicants to 56 ads for engineering and project management-based positions at one Canadian employer.

Some of these ads featured N-S fit statements that were based on psychological needs and meant to be widely appealing in informing jobseekers about how the position would provide them with task identity, task significance, skill variety, autonomy and opportunities for advancement. 

N-S statements included:
•“You will have the opportunity to work on a variety of tasks and develop your skills in many areas.”

•“This position is on an important project, so the successful applicant will have the opportunity to make a valuable contribution to the organization and see the project through to its completion.”

•“We seek to provide employees with constructive feedback to foster their career growth.”

•“Employees are given many opportunities for advancement.”

• “Your job will also provide you with autonomy as you will be required to complete tasks with minimal supervision.” 

In the end, there was a higher number of overall applicants to the ads with N-S fit statements but, more importantly, these job ads attracted higher-quality applicants than those emphasizing D-A fit (as opposed to influencing lower-quality applicants to self-select out).

“When we looked at the very best applicants — so those we rated as five on a five-point scale — they were much more prevalent in the needs-supplies category than in the demands-ability manipulation,” says Chapman. 

“We developed a metric of a simple ratio between the number of views and number of applications, and that was substantially more effective in the needs-supplies condition where emphasis is on what the employer can do for the applicant.”

So why do the N-S fit job ads have greater appeal? A lot of it has to do with the luxury of being able to consider that kind of information, he says.

“Weaker applicants, they’ll apply for whatever jobs are available. Strong applicants can pick and choose among the ones they choose to apply for and, as a result, they’re looking for job ads that stand out to them... the ones that emphasized what the company can do for them, rather than a list of what the job requirements are.”

The job ads were also directed at more experienced applicants, with average years of experience being 13.93, says Joseph Schmidt, assistant professor at the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and co-author of the study.

“When you’re looking for a new job, you care about what you’re going to get out of it too, and we purposely emphasized psychological needs as opposed to… pay and location and more of the extrinsic factors that are in jobs as well, because research has shown that intrinsic motivation is really important to people and, at the end of the day, that’s the primary motivating factor, once you have your basic needs met,” says Schmidt.

“People, I think, are really looking for that and they’re really paying attention to that type of information to understand how they’ll fit and what their day-to-day experience will be in the organization.”

Lessons learned
If job ads fail to include information that job seekers can use to determine fit, recruiting organizations risk losing high-quality applicants who develop inaccurate fit perceptions based on the information provided and self-select out of the recruitment process, say the researchers in the study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

“Even small differences in the average quality of applicants can have a substantial impact on companies that hire people for positions of high value to the organization.”

Stressing information about N-S fit can create a substantial return on investment, says the study.

“Emphasizing such information will increase the utility of an organization’s selection system and, ultimately, have the potential to contribute to organizational performance through the attraction of high-performing employees.”

A lot of companies don’t give a lot of thought to job ads, says Chapman.

“A lot of times, it’s looked at as an administrative function — get a copy of the job requirements and post it out there — without a great deal of thought about ‘How do I get more high-quality applicants?’ So I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, I think they just do what they’ve always done.”

People are focused on listing the qualifications — exactly what’s expected of people — in hopes that a lot of the unqualified applicants will weed themselves out of the process, says Schmidt.

“But, I think, in the process, there might be some qualified applicants who have potentially a lot of opportunities who might weed themselves out because they can’t see how they fit with the organization.”

Rethinking strategy
Most organizations don’t spend a lot of time thinking about recruiting strategies — they’re kind of on auto pilot, says Chapman.

“Many companies would benefit from sitting down and looking at what is their recruiting message, what are headwinds that make recruiting difficult for them, what are tailwinds that help them recruit effectively — sort of assess what they have to offer and then build their job ads around that type of information to try to counter negative impressions and bolster positive ones to get the most out there.”

There’s also a concern companies will be overrun with applications if they make a job ad look too attractive, which can mean additional expenses to go through all the resumés. 

But given the number of quality applicants that come in, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff, says Schmidt.

“Even if you get just one or two more really good applicants, it makes a tremendous difference in your recruiting effort.”

That’s not to say companies shouldn’t put what they need from candidates in job ads, he says, but they should balance out that approach by telling applicants what they’re going to get from the employment experience as well.

It’s not a particularly difficult thing to do, it’s just setting aside the time to think strategically instead of administratively, says Schmidt.

“There really hasn’t been a lot of research out there to tell them what’s effective and what’s less effective — we’re hoping that this particular study will give one piece of information that will help them design more effective job ads.”

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