Can Applicant-Written Job Descriptions Aid in Hiring?

By Kathy Gurchiek March 10, 2015

Write your own job description and then get hired to fill it? Dream on, right?

It’s a talent strategy adopted by Payoff Inc., a Calif.-based consumer financial services company that hired someone based on the job description he submitted.

The man, who had a strong marketing background but wanted to be in product management, was hired in February 2015 as Payoff’s product marketing manager. It was the first such hire for the 5-year-old company that has grown from 10 employees to 70 full-time employees in the last 18 months, and it’s a tactic the company plans to continue using, where appropriate.

“We feel the hiring process is broken,” said Carey Ransom, Payoff’s chief marketing officer.

“This [approach] gives [applicants] an opportunity to really show off a little bit more, to show off who they are—their passion and capability—and tell a story that’s much more specific to who they are.”

In his job description, the applicant exposed some organizational needs that “were absolutely on our radar, but he helped us crystalize what that role could look like … [and we thought] it would really work in the day-to-day culture and processes we currently have,” Ransom said.

It’s a strategy that requires a hands-on approach to hiring.

“You need a recruiter or an HR manager who doesn’t mind coaching on this, because it takes a lot of time,” said Amanda Ferris, team builder for Payoff who serves as its recruiter. “You really need to have the right managers and recruiters who want to spend the time” reaching out to candidates.

She follows up on a candidate’s cover letter and resume with an e-mail or phone call to draw out and coach the individual through the writing of a job description, if it appears that the individual may be able to apply his or her skills and experience in ways the organization had not considered.

It’s an approach that may not work for all organizations.

“We’re highly collaborative,” Ferris said. “An organization that is very structured, very corporate—I don’t know that it would make sense for them because [doing this is] very disruptive” and could result in a change to the organization’s process or structure.

This hiring tactic is not appropriate for this jobs, she added. She sometimes has to have a conversation with a job seeker to explain why the position he or she is suggesting does not currently make sense for the organization. Additionally, there’s no guarantee that someone who writes a job description will be hired. One candidate, for example, wanted to be the in-office chiropractor.

Other job descriptions, though, show promise. Another candidate Ferris worked closely with did not land the job he wanted but made a good impression. He wrote a detailed description that included the type of work he wanted to perform, his idea of a perfect workday, the type of colleagues he wanted to work with and his thoughts on what makes a great leader.

Payoff did not have a position for him, nor did it create one to accommodate the job description he wrote, Ferris said, “but this is a great example of someone who took the time to really think about what he wanted. This type of candidate I will keep on my radar as we are growing.”

HR Professionals Weigh In

Other companies have used this concept to find talent, and some HR professionals see value in having applicants write their own job descriptions.

“It will be a great attraction, especially when the openings are for new roles or some new functions in the organizations,” said Rashid Ahmed, head of HR at Afayan Group, in a discussion on the Society for Human Resource Management’s LinkedIn page.

“It will be amazing,” he added, “to know how every individual has a different perspective and a different approach to perform similar functions.”

Ed Cohen, a leadership coach and global diversity consultant, also sees value in this tactic.

“It’s a great way to see if the applicant truly understands the role they are being hired to perform. It is also useful when you hire for traits and attitude rather than skill.”

Scott R. Barnes, executive vice president and vice president of HR at eCam Secure, thinks asking applicants to write a short job description of primary functions for the position for which they are applying provides clarity.

“I think it is a great exercise,” he said on LinkedIn. “We currently ask this of applicants to make sure there is no misunderstanding about the position they are applying for, and [it] forces them to really think about whether they see themselves in this capacity.”

Others, such as Renee Gillespie Torchia, Ph.D., a coach and consultant, see it as an engagement strategy appropriate for some leadership positions but not for “someone early in their career or unfamiliar with the industry.” Instead, she suggested instead asking the applicant how he or she would approach the job.

Having applicants write their own job descriptions raises two main questions for organizations, she said in the LinkedIn discussion: How and when is this tactic appropriate? What role would HR play, and is this a way for organizations to avoid partnering with HR strategically?

Torchia suggested that HR play “a strategic role in co-creating the description to provide guidance while encouraging engagement and the application of expertise.”

Consultant Patricia Duarte has recommended self-defined job descriptions and titles as part of the annual review process, noting that it “helps ensure job descriptions are up-to-date and align with self and manager evaluations.” The result: “Responsibilities more accurately reflect the actual work and, when shared with teammates or colleagues, often reveal redundancies and/or gaps,” she said.

Some HR professionals are wary about the potential problems that could result from a candidate writing his or her job description.

HR professional Mohammad Saad Usmani, Ph.D., pointed to a former employer that permitted employees to create their own job descriptions without supervision.

One senior-level employee did this, and the resulting scenario ended poorly after his manager rated him below target during the annual performance review and suggested that the employee look for other job opportunities, Usmani told SHRM Online.

“The manager identified that while designing his job description, the employee missed a critical area for which he should be accountable,” Usmani recalled. A disagreement among the parties led to litigation in court.

It’s important, Payoff’s Ferris said, to have an in-depth conversation with the applicant about the job description he or she writes so there is agreement "on certain deliverables."

“You may have to tweak [the job description] a bit, but as long as you’re transparent with it and you’re on the same page as the candidate, I don’t see why there would be a problem,” she said.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.



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