It can be hard to recruit and be recruited. So why do we let the opaque language of HR and personal statements get in the way?
by Louise Powney
If you have decided to try and find a new role, you are effectively taking on a second job for the duration. It’s like having to work a couple of nights a week in a dodgy pub where you’re forced to engage with the drunken ramblings of a parade of purple-nosed regulars. Except those purple-nosed regulars are potential new employers and their ramblings are the double-headed horror that is the job description and person specification.
Comms jobs, like all others, involve a lot of concrete, definable tasks: writing a comms plan, copy editing, working with graphic designers. Yes, there’s a certain amount of qualitative, strategic thinking, but generally there are processes that result in end products. So why, then, are JDs and PSs often so abstract? So chronically woolly that the applicant is left thinking: say what now?
A few years ago, whilst grinding out yet another personal statement, sentence by painful sentence, I realised that five of the coy (read: evasive) bullet points in the “essential” column were, to all intents and purposes, exactly the same. Do they want a different example for each? Is a five-for-one offer available? Please! Someone! Tell me what they want!
Then I got thinking. As this grimy opacity is so prevalent, does the problem actually lie with me? Given that this is a profession where good, clear writing is the quintessential skill, am I missing some highly sophisticated postmodern joke that I’m not clever enough to get?
Or may be JDs and PSs are a latter-day Rosetta Stone? Hidden deep within them is a key that will unlock all the secrets, allowing me to pass unhindered to the broad sunlit uplands of a fabulous new position. But no. There is no such thing. There is no elegance or sleight of hand at work here, no code to be cracked. These documents are, more often than not, a disgrace.
What hope, then, for applicants? Do we just have to keep sucking it up and play the game? All those tips for successful CVs and applications? I abandoned reading those long ago. “Use the same language that the recruiters use,” they opine. I don’t think so. Start travelling down that Via Dolorosa and all self-respect will be gone. Describe myself as “results-driven” or “outcome-focused”? I would truly rather die. Am I “passionate”? Yeah, I’m passionate all right. I’m passionate about not coming across as borderline illiterate.
The only reason why good people do get recruited is thanks to the fact that comms folk are programmed to scythe through all this uninspiring constipated guff. One day, just for sport, I would like to send back a JD and PS, all marked up like an essay, bristling with red comments bellowing “SENSE???”. You say I need to be able to proofread? You say I need to pay close attention to detail? You say I need to be able to deal with “complex” information? Here you go, here’s the very best example I can give you. Right back atcha!
On a less flippant note, what does this say about the employer? You’re really not selling yourself here, but yet you might be employing me as a communicator to do exactly that? Now, this is either an informed cry for help or it displays a perilous lack of self-awareness that only a psychiatrist should be dealing with, and not some chancer with three CIPR qualifications and an A-level in psychology.
Of course, one solution to the whole sorry mess is to involve comms people in writing JDs and PSs in the first place. A former boss of mine used to claim that HR stood for human remains and I can’t help thinking that it is often the area of an organisation where enthusiasm goes to die under a heaving pile of policies. Get some good writers to give recruitment documents a bit of a once over, so that they sound as if, you know, it’s a job that’s enjoyable and worth doing and supports a great organisation, surely can’t be a waste of time, can it?
And this does work. Many years ago, a colleague and I were asked to spruce up a director-level application pack. For a quick job, it paid a lot of dividends. I mentioned the pack to a new starter a couple of months in, and he replied “Did you write that? That was one of the reasons I applied; it made me want to come and be a part of the city.” Job done.
So where to from here? Or have we reached an appalling impasse, eye-balling each other with dug-in heels? Possibly not. In February, a new recruitment platform, Applied, was launched. This is a partnership between Nesta and the Behavioural Insights Team which aims to remove bias from the recruitment process. It’s still early days for the tool, but the idea is fascinating. At the moment it focuses on supporting recruiters to make the best decisions from the applications they’ve received but it will be interesting to see how it supports applicants to make their best application.
Imagine, applying for jobs might even become an enjoyable process! People’s enthusiasm might be allowed to come through rather than being drained out of them as they shoehorn their sensible experience into those nonsensical oh-so essential criteria.
Louise Powney is a communications officer in the North West and a former newspaper reporter.
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