Tuesday, 17 February 2009

We Expect You to Be Able to Walk on Water - Excessive Demands in Job Specifications

With the end of my current job less than five months away I am back into the pattern of applying for work. Of course I am doing this at probably the worse time possible. There are going to be so many more people out there seeking jobs. I have already accepted that given that all the jobs in my field seem to be in northern England or Scotland and I am living currently in southern England, that I am going to have to move yet again which will mean that by the end of 2009 I will be in the fifth house I have lived in since 2005 and the eighth since 2001. You can hardly say that I am not part of the flexible labour force, though of course half of those moves have been compelled by the landlord rather than me seeking work.

Anyway, having swallowed the fact that there will be yet more packing and unpacking, before that stage I actually have to get a new job. Of course, I have accepted that it means that I am likely to face a pay cut too, but again, I reckon I could probably tolerate a fall of £5000 (€5600; US$7100) per year, perhaps more, especially if I move to northern England and Scotland, where, bar from in expensive city centres, the cost of property to rent is cheaper than the South-East of England and some consumables are cheaper too. Against this willingness to be flexible is the fact that I am now over 40 and despite anti-ageist legislation, I know that in all fields employers prefer a cheap, young employee over an old, more expensive one. So I quite expect to be unemployed with only my £1400 redundancy payment to help me out, this would pay less than two months' worth of my mortgage, so house repossession is also likely.

Despite the fact that much of what I have currently could be gone by the Summer, I am persisting in looking for any job that I seem suited for. I am registered with online agencies and have weekly emails of vacancies. I also have friends and relations keeping their ears and eyes open for possible jobs too, just as you are recommended to do. At present I am being very positive and applying for posts that would actually be a promotion for me, though I may be deluding myself in that regard. The big challenge is the job specifications. I discussed some of this back in August 2007 when looking at the silly way so many companies behave when recruiting people. Now I am back to actually applying for jobs once more, I am finding many new examples and I am sure thousands of you out there have your own war stories.

I do wonder who writes job specifications. In most companies of any size the Personnel Department or Human Resources or whatever, is often involved and from my experience on that side of the process, have a great deal of input which usually slows down and complicates the recruitment process. These days there is often a standard pattern, with an outline of who you would be reporting to if you got this job and what functions the job entails, well that is fine, it is generally what you need to know. Sometimes there is a detailed description of the company and its history which if you were interested you would already know anyway, but some people insist on including as if they are going to set you a comprehension test on it. Then you get to the so-called Person Specification. This reminds me of people who go to dating websites and somehow expect that they can order a perfect partner who matches every item they tick or cross. In fact humans are more varied than that and do not fit patterns.

The idea behind person specifications is a sound one, that they break down the requirements of a job into bite-sized chunks against which the applicant outlines their abilities and experience. When applying for my second job in the civil service, the interviewer literally read out these and asked for a response which was then written down by the secretary, sometimes she would ask for another example too. It was incredibly mechanical and would have been better handled by completing a computer-based questionnaire. It is clear that these specifications are an aggregate of the wishes of a team of people, often coming from very different parts of the company. Many people involved in recruitment have set requests that they always ask for (particularly in terms of qualifications) which in fact bear no relevance to the job in question. I remember working with one colleague on recruitment who always insisted that the applicants must make use of time management software in their work. I suppose it is a good principle, but she simply kept asking about the use of this stuff and ironically none of the applicants used it. Asking for certain qualifications is more about the perceived status of the job than actually what the job entails. I am incredulous that I received application forms for managerial positions which ask me to list every exam I took in secondary school and which grade I got. I last took such an exam in 1984, what effect does whether I got a 'C' or a 'B' in 'O' Level Mathematics (an exam which has not existed since 1992), 25 years ago, have on how good I can manage a department now? It is just like saying that the overseas sales of the company in 2009 are influenced by the balance of payments or the exchange rates of 1984. For all the emphasis on skills, abilities and experience in person specifications, so many of the elements included are simply ritualistic.

Companies are conscious that their staff costs are often the largest single component of their outlay so they seek to reduce them, often below a level which permits the company to function most effectively. This seems to be particularly the case in the UK, which ironically has a low-salary economy, but certainly has the longest working hours of the EU. This is because so many UK employees are actually doing the job of 2 or even 3 people. I remember some jobs of the past that I have looked at that definitely seemed to include this. In particular in the late 1990s I remember a company in Norwich that wanted someone who could translate documents from German to English, establish a database, maintain an online presence and work on the helpdesk until 10pm when requested. In many companies these functions would be carried out by four staff, perhaps with some overlap, but to expect all of these skills to be wrapped up in a single individual for £16,000 per year (which even in 1998 was not a stupendous salary) either seemed that they had a precise person they simply wanted to give the job to, at a miserly rate if they indeed had all those skills or that the coming together of different departments had meant the stitching together of a Frankenstein's monster of a post. This was just one of the most extreme examples, but you see if constantly. Whenever recruiting staff I always battle to keep down the number of requirements on the person specification and ensure they are actually relevant to the job the person will do, not what people think the person doing that job does or wishes they would do.

Often the demands are contradictory. Even if you can read the coded language of person specifications it often conceals a turmoil behind the thinking of the recruiter. The most classic case of this I saw was when I worked with two colleagues on a panel to appoint a deputy to the fourth member of the panel. She was one of these people who bunged in loads of additional requirements, like so many managers, seeming to feel that a single employee could somehow radically alter the department and this in a 0.5 post not even a full-time one. Her specification wanted someone who could organise huge events, deal on a one-to-one basis with clients, maintain and further develop the website in new directions and carry out both secretarial and administrative roles on 2.5 days per week and the actual days altered week-to-week as the manager required, though she often gave less than 14 days' notice. We asked the manager if she wanted an assistant or a lieutenant. Now there is a difference, the former simply does what the manager asks and takes little iniative; the latter can stand in for the manager if she is not there and will develop new projects under her own steam. Anyway, the manager said she wanted a lieutenant. She had the chance to change her mind when we interviewed the applicants, one was like an assistant in personality and one like a lieutenant. The manager went for the latter who turned out to be incredibly hard working (often staying late and coming in at weekends despite being part-time) and advanced the department's provision and profile. Was the manager pleased? Of course not, she whined and complained that this woman was taking far too much initiative and being too brusque. She kept the woman on probation for 12 months longer than normal by which time the woman sensibly resigned. Of course the manager had in fact wanted an assistant, well, in fact a lackey, but had felt embarrassed to admit that despite it being offered to her. In addition, her own self-esteem seemed to matter far more than any benefits which accrued to her department.

So, even behind the over-stacked, contradictory person specifications there is often a whole extra layer of incompetence just lurking there. Now it is my turn for the first time in almost four years to start applying for jobs again. Fashions in recruitment seem to change pretty quickly, in my experience the acceptable style for a CV lasts two years, but person specifications are still around and seem to be much in the same style. Of course the companies I am applying to, may be simply lagging in terms of fashion. Person specifications usually have Essential (usually shown with an 'E') and Desirable ('D') criteria which are usually used to separate two very close interviewees. The former, in theory, are what you must have in order to do the job, though as noted above, in fact they are usually the requirements three people need to do three different jobs and it is unlikely anyone straddling so many skill sets actually exists. This is why you so often see re-advertisements with the company complaining that there were insufficient good candidates. It also helps explain why industry feels young people are under-skilled. This may be true in some cases, but no-one has analysed if in fact, the mismatch stems from companies increasinly wanting applicants who are made up of more than one individual's abilities and have years of experience in a newcomer to that labour market.

I was told that if you match 4 out of 5 of the E requirements then you should apply for a job. Of course many recruiters do not work that way, it has to be that you match 6 out of 5 (the sixth being the one they would have wanted to include but it was felt there were too many and you should know what the extra ones were) or otherwise you are hopeless. Recruiters are merciless in telling applicants when they feel they have wasted their time. (As an aside, you know how, especially in times of high unemployment you are advised to speculatively apply to companies that you think you could work for. When I did this one rung twice to tell me at length that 'this is not how things are done' and that I should know better. They thought I was lying when I said other very similar companies took my applications in good faith and in at least two cases in the past it had got me work). No-one ever applies for a job for 'fun'. There are far better things to do in a day than spend a couple of hours filling in yet another form and trying to draft what you are saying to the hundreds of requirements expected by the company. As applicants we take it seriously, it is a shame companies often do not do so too.

My last application was in response to a person specification. It had 18 E requirements and 3 D requirements, actually not a bad number. However, when you look at what they entail, they need a strategist, a process manager, a product quality controller, a staff performance/personnel manager, a market researcher and forecaster, a marketing manager and a researcher, and, of course, your bog-standard line manager and committee chair. Now, many of these skills do not actually sit well alongside others. In addition, if I was as good a marketing manager as they are seeking, I would be going for marketing manager jobs, not this vacancy and in fact that goes for most of the other types of post they are wrapping up in this one. I applied partly for the challenge of stretching myself across these different roles, but I anticipate they are going to be disappointed because this is not one job it is at least four if not more.

Setting unrealistic expectations is going to lead to disappointment and though the successful applicant will have done their best and try to fit with what is required, that disappointment that they are not the super-human that was desired is going to hang over them, as it did over my 2.5-day lieutenant colleague, and that is an appalling basis on which to start a working relationship. It also reduces effectiveness as managers squabble over the employee to make them come and do the role that they wanted and thinks they have appointed someone for, whereas 1-3 other managers also try to snatch the new worker thinking that the person was appointed to the role they felt they needed. The newcomer is left dizzy and their efforts are dispersed; they are at the whim of management changes and work that they have focused on might simply be declared unnecessary or irrelevant when a different manager comes to the fore. Thus, unrealistic, aggregate person specifications disconnected from the job in hand, not only make life difficult for applicants but also harm the company.

P.P. 17/06/2009 - I just encountered a new record for the number of requirements on a job specification. This one, which is actually a lower-ranked job than the previous record holder (36 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements). This one has a total of 38 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements. It is clear that whoever wrote the specification clearly cannot tell the difference between every task you might be assigned in the job and what the necessary skills are to undertake it. Whatever they might assume, there is a difference. To me all of this signals that more staff across companies need to be trained in how to recruit (and interview) effectively to save wasting their, the company's and the applicants' time.

Another phenomenon is that even with jobs which being advertised to the general public and are not internal posts, you are asked to show evidence that you have experienc of their particular, named committees, which not having ever worked there is impossible. This may be suggesting that really they only want internal candidates and yet have felt or been compelled to advertise more broadly, or, I believe more likely, that no-one has proof-read the specifications before they are sent out. For one the other day, which only had 20 Essential requirements, a number of skills were repeated down the page so responding to each in turn I found that I was repeating myself. It is a waste of time for the recruiters as well as for the applicants. Employers, please take far more care over your job specifications. In my experience, you can reduce your requirements by a fifth simply by removing duplication.

No comments: