How to interpret job advertisements

Us Finns have some extraordinary qualities that come handy particularly in the surroundings we live in. Snow and silence (together or separately) for example can be quite tough for many other nationalities to handle – we have no problem with either. We are also punctual; if an appointment is scheduled to start at 11:15, it tends to do exactly that. There is no concept of mañana, e.g. ‘some time in the future’, in Finnish. And so on. We do, however, also have some qualities that do not play to our advantage. One of them is that we tend to take instructions too literally. As soon as EU sets a new Directive on anything, you can bet Finland is the first country jumping to implement it, at whatever cost. Regardless of whether there is any benefit. After all, there is the Directive. During the last couple of years, having met hundreds of job applicants in one-on-one coaching sessions, I have had to admit that the same mindset is also visible in how surprisingly many job seekers read and evaluate job advertisements.

It is understandably frustrating, when a professional seeking employment comes across an ad clearly promoting their dream job – only to find that they cannot apply because the requirements listed for the candidates are at least to some extent above and beyond what they have.

Let me take this opportunity to share a few tips on how to interpret job advertisements. These are by no means Directives, but aimed to help you evaluate whether you should send an application to that interesting vacancy that caught your attention.

  1. Role description. The level of detail provided in a job advertisement about the role in question varies tremendously between different employers. Some are way too detailed – some too brief to attract candidates. Employers try to stand apart from the rest by applying their own style also in job advertisements. Obviously also the scope of the role determines the need of elaboration. I would recommend to pay attention to what is said – and equally well, what is not mentioned. This is often times a good source of questions to ask when you call to get more details.
  2. Work experience. If there is a specific requirement on the length of work experience required, take it as indicative. ‘Minimum five years of equivalent work experience’ does not mean you should not apply because you have three and half years. If the requirement is minimum 10 years and you have three, opt out.
  3. Education. There are jobs where a very specific degree or qualification is required, end of story. Then either you have that qualification, or you do not need to apply. However in many cases it is stated vaguely, such as ‘university degree’, or my personal favorite ‘university degree or equivalent’. That leaves a lot of room for imagination. In public sector jobs, the indicated education level is mandatory and there is rarely room for negotiation around it. In private sector, however, the level or field of education is often not a critical, carved-in-stone type of requirement. The more working years you have under your belt, the more likely it is that your competencies and experience overrule.
  4. Personality / characteristics. If the employer is looking for a social, service-oriented person, with excellent interpersonal skills, and you know you are more of an introvert type, it still does not automatically mean you should not apply if the role appeals to you. It just means you need to be prepared to put more effort on the social aspects of the role, as those are typically not as natural ways of working to you as they are to more socially inclined individual. You yourself know best what you are capable of. If you do not feel the personality traits indicated match yours, ask yourself would you still enjoy working in that role. If yes, apply.
  5. Contact person. Every job advertisement should always have contact details where interested candidates can ask further details on the role or the selection criteria. Unfortunately they are still not always provided. I personally would not apply for a vacancy where there is no contact information listed, but that is just me. If the details are there, with a specified time when to call, try to time your call as instructed. That is not always possible, or the line may be busy. Then you can of course try to reach the person at another time. One polite way to do it would be for example to send an sms to the person and ask what would be an appropriate time for you to call.
  6. Target groups. This may not be top of mind when reading a job advertisement, but this is important so I wanted to take it up here as well. Job advertisements are just another form of company communication or marketing material that the employer publishes. In addition to job seekers, the employer knows that also their competitors as well as current and potential future customers read the job advertisements. In many cases, this has a significant impact on what is, or is not, said in the role description – or why certain role requirements are defined the way they are. Job ads can be used to boost company image in certain field of expertise, for example. Or aim to direct competitor attention to certain type of resourcing – perhaps away from something else going on. The more the reason for you as a candidate to ask clarifying questions, and not take the provided text at face value.

There. My five…okay, well, six cents on how to interpret job advertisements. Feel free to agree or challenge these points. The requirements in an ad may well paint the picture of an ideal candidate for the role. If the ideal one does not apply this time, the closest ones to that stand a good chance. And high motivation, even passion towards the type of role in question, will always make a difference.

Go for it!

Recruitment in start-ups: When two plus three needs to equal six

For any start-up business, one element equally important to adequate funding is having the right people. The smaller the number of employees currently, I would argue, the more significant the implications of each new recruitment decision made. The qualifications, skills and aspirations of each new employee should optimally fit the role available and complement the competencies of the existing employees. Start-ups in particular aim for synergies. The deliverables need to be more than the sum of their parts. In most cases that is still easier to accomplish than getting the 25th hour into a day. So how should a start-up go about finding their next star performer?

First and foremost, spend enough time in planning the recruitment. Even though the owners of the business may have their sights set so far on the horizon that pausing for something as seemingly low-key as a job description is difficult, it will pay off in the process outcome. Pay attention to how you describe the position at hand. Clarity is important in attracting the desired candidates. What will the person in this role be responsible for? What are the deliverables? To what extent is it a team effort? What degree of freedom will the selected individual have to shape his workweek? And so on. Have at least a couple of people who have no insight on the particular job, to read the description and explain to you how they understood it.

You need the role description also to be able to define the requirements for that optimal candidate. It is often emphasized how start-ups in particular look for the right attitude and fit. No problem with that, as long as there are also other qualifications or criteria to enable right targeting of candidates. It is fine to expect characteristics like commitment, high working morale, team spirit, flexibility and service orientation. But such attributes make poor targeting criteria for initial candidate selection – those are more likely to be aspects that can be evaluated in assessment testing and interview rounds. What experience, industry knowledge, certifications or readiness does that right candidate need to have?

Once the vacancy at hand is clearly defined, the other key contributor to attracting the right calibre of candidates is of course awareness. How do you bring this marvelous career opportunity to the attention of the most capable potential candidates? Chances are most of them are currently working, and therefore unlikely to follow any job advertisements. If that is the case, money spent on paid advertisements is largely money (and time) wasted. Engaging all the company’s current employees to check for potentially suitable individuals in their own networks is likely to be a more fruitful approach. And reaching out for professional recruiters is in many cases a very sensible option as well – from both cost and quality perspectives. As an additional plus, professional recruiters will also immediately notice if the job description leaves room for improvement or if the desired candidate profile is not concrete enough.

The fun begins when the above-mentioned pitfalls have been avoided and the actual selection process can start. Every applicant may have a differently structured CV, and a different, personal angle taken in their cover letters. Reading them through is one thing – comparing them against one another is quite a different ballgame. This is why some employers favor frozen templates in their application process – the comparison and selection process is no doubt faster and can even be automated to a large extent when all applicants have been forced into the same mold. Speed and quality do not always go hand-in-hand though. When applicants are forced to follow the same application format, their chance to make a personal application gets lost. You were looking for the right ‘fit’? The fit spells personality. Also, hands up, how many start-ups out there want a rigid, inflexible application process to be the first impression they give to their potential new talent? You catch my drift. Selecting the most promising candidates from a pile of applications is of course tedious work when all applications look different – but they look different for a reason, and a key to successful selection is to explore those differences, not try to force them go away.

Planning is a critical element in any aspect of business. Recruitment is no exception. Few start-ups have experienced recruiters in their payroll. Even fewer would be able to make the right selection from an entirely wrong pool of candidates.

Name your price…oops…salary

There’s not too many countries in this nice, blue planet of ours, where everyone knows how much money their colleague, their neighbor and their favorite celebrity made last year. But in Finland we all have access to that information via the public taxation records. What benefit does that serve? I can’t think of any. One major disadvantage comes to mind though: in a country where envy grows as an endless natural resource, that ability nothing but fuels it.

Okay. Fine. So we have public taxation records. Live with it.

I do. And I personally don’t bother with it. What does bother me, though, is the completely opposite approach – the ultimate secrecy – that hovers in the job market around salary ranges for any advertised vacancy. In public sector, the salary grade is often noted in the job advertisement. But in private sector, you will not find any such numbers in job ads. You would be more likely to find the original recipe for Coca-Cola in the vacancy text. This approach would not be sensible in most markets. And it is downright ridiculous in a market where the taxable income of everyone is public information.`

If the salary ranges were given in the job advertisements, everyone would benefit. The applicants would have one more critical piece of information available to determine whether the position is within their interests and reach (trust me, that is not always easy to evaluate from the requested years of experience and expected degrees). The employer would most likely get less applications – or at least applicants would be more of the expected caliber. And the unavoidable discussion on salary in the final stages of interviews would be far less likely to result in a dead end.

To further demonstrate that all Moomins are perhaps no longer in the canoe, in the Finnish job market it is normal practice to ask the applicant to state his or her salary request in the job application. Sing Hallelujah, brother! Dear employers, are you asking for salary request just because most other employers are doing so, or is there really an auction about to take place? But wait – if it is an auction you have in mind, is it the lowest or the highest bidder who gets the job? Do you then go for the seasoned, experienced talent who knows his worth, or aim for a discount deal?

In motor sports, race drivers have two ways to proceed with their careers. One is talent. By driving better than the rest, even with mediocre equipment, showing you got what it takes to become a champion. The other way, if you can’t quite excel on the track, is to excel on the sponsorship collection. You can buy your way to the next class, to the better team. Even with the latter approach, you can enjoy a season or two in the limelight and live your dream. Nothing wrong with that, as such. The champions, however, tend to still come from the first category.

When I coach job seekers, one of the most common questions I get is regarding the salary requests – how to address those. My advice is always the same – leave it out. And my justification for this is very simple: from the job applicant’s perspective, stating a salary request can only work against him. I have not come across a single case where otherwise promising candidate did not get invited to a job interview because he or she did not state a salary request in the application. But I am aware of cases where the opposite has happened: the single reason why a candidate was dropped out was because the stated salary request was off the employer’s range for the job. Typically quite significantly off, either too low or too high. The employer always – always – has a planned salary range or other compensation model in mind for the vacancy they have. They know what they want the person to be selected for that role to achieve, and what those achievements are worth to them. And they typically have done their homework on what, roughly, the ranges for similar responsibility level of roles, with similar candidate profiles, are in the market. Or at the latest, they will get that understanding when using a professional recruiter and discussing the role and the responsibilities.

There really is no need to run a lottery with the applicants to guess the numbers.

Did I hear someone yell ‘bingo’?