Why job descriptions are becoming less specific

Companies seek to cast a wider net to find exceptional finance talent.
Why job descriptions are becoming less specific

As the fight for finance talent intensifies, businesses are making advertised job descriptions less specific to avoid missing top candidates, say recruiters. Employers are hiring for the most critical skills only, then offering training to help new hires succeed.

The Robert Half 2019 Accounting and Finance Salary Guide said unemployment rates for financial professionals often stay below the national average in the US, and there are skills shortages in many sectors. In this environment, companies are starting to recognise that cutting candidates who do not have every single quality they seek could cause them to miss the talent they need.

Companies are becoming more flexible in other ways, too, the Robert Half guide said. For example, they realise long and rigid recruitment processes could lead them to miss a top candidate. So, they are moving quickly to make job offers to candidates with the right attitude, knowing they can train missing skills later.

They are also increasingly benchmarking and adjusting salaries; doing more to prepare employees for career advancement; and offering better work/life balance through flexible and remote working arrangements. These perks are among the top motivators of finance workers, according to a survey of CGMA designation holders

But offering more generic job descriptions is a particularly unusual move that reflects the strength of the current jobs market. And not every company is going down that path. London-based Tiarnan Cotter, business manager at Michael Page Finance, said that in an uncertain economic climate, some employers are taking on the extra cost of a new employee only if they are sure they will add value immediately.

“The concern with gambling on a candidate that ticks fewer boxes but has more potential is that they will require more time and training to add value to the business,” Cotter said.

Finding will and skill

Writing narrow job descriptions means you can miss out on “people who aren’t perfect on paper but in person are right,” said Matt Weston, UK managing director of Robert Half

“That means job descriptions need to be flexible and relatively generic. Instead, you look for will and skill — but the will is far more important because the skill is trainable. More specifically, employers are looking for potential, adaptability, passion, and a willingness to learn.”

This often means the recruitment process needs to focus more on assessing the candidate’s trainability, adaptability, values, and soft skills.

“We deal in people not paper,” Weston said. “Softer skills never come out in a CV or résumé. There will always be some technical and competency-based assessment. But the employer also needs to see how the candidate would fit with the team dynamic and culture.

“We’re seeing companies do this in many ways, such as using more assessment centres, Skyping to see how candidates communicate via technology, and asking them to do business presentations. We’re also seeing more interviews with other team members, rather than just the direct manager, to assess the candidate culturally.”

Adapting to change

UK-based Lee Owen, a senior business director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, said more company job advertisements are listing only essential skills rather than a list of preferred competencies. This can widen organisations’ talent pool by encouraging more candidates to apply. “More adverts follow a less rigid structure and are more flexible around the role description and requirements,” Owen said.

Another reason employers are taking this approach is it allows roles to evolve more over time, he said.

“As change is so fast in many organisations, due to digital transformation and investment in technology, less prescriptive job adverts allow more room for roles to adapt,” Owen said.

The speed of technological change has forced employers to focus more on training staff in new technical skills rather than hiring candidates with experience in that area, he said. And survey data bears that out: 84% of companies in a 2019 Robert Half poll said they are willing to hire and train a candidate who lacks required skills.

Another factor is that employers are tending to focus more on developing finance professionals’ soft skills, such as creativity and communication. There will be a greater need for these skills as more tasks become automated, Owen said.

Marcus Williams, a London-based associate director at recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley, said another reason for writing more general job descriptions is the increased focus on avoiding discrimination and increasing diversity. Being too specific risks alienating certain groups if you are not careful, so it is good to keep it general, Williams said.

It also reflects the reality that few candidates are perfect, he said. “Hiring managers still want to get as close to perfect as possible,” he said. “But typically, no one ticks every box. Sometimes, you may exhaust your search for someone perfect. So you may have to widen it to those who tick some boxes, but not all.”

However, he said many employers are turning this necessity into a positive by offering more training opportunities. This helps attract talent as lifelong learning becomes increasingly important to today’s workforce.

The change towards more flexible job descriptions means employers need a more open mindset, say recruiters.

Williams advises employers to spend more time considering the potential career trajectory of candidates, rather than just focusing on previous skills and experience.

Weston suggests companies consider changing their approach entirely by focusing on creating roles for brilliant candidates rather than filling specific jobs.

Potential downsides

Relaxing job descriptions is not always desirable, however. It depends on many factors, including the seniority of the role and the employer’s timeline for making a hire, Williams said.

For senior roles especially, employers want to get as much as they can for the higher salary. “No one wants to pay a premium, then spend 12 months training someone,” he said. “It also depends how critical the role is and how quickly they want to hire.

“If they’re recruiting for a senior role and they have some time, they may be prepared to wait for exactly the right person. But for some junior roles, especially those that need filling quickly, companies are being more flexible and offering more training.”

Cotter also warned companies using more flexible job descriptions not to leave out any keywords. “As candidates often have keyword alerts on job sites, there is a danger that the lack of keywords can mean quality candidates are missed,” he said.

Williams and Weston both said the main downside to making job descriptions more general is that you risk spending more time interviewing unsuitable candidates, thus making the recruitment process longer and more challenging.

“But there are more upsides than there are downsides to doing it,” Weston said.

— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at