What Can You Do With What You Know?

Day two of SHRHM 14 started with internationally renowned author, reporter, and columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman’s presentation focused on the future of business, and more specifically on the changes brought about by the digital explosion and increased connectivity.

One of the best statements made by him came when he was discussing the changing expectations of employers regarding their workforce:

“Know one cares what you know or where you went to school. They care about what you can do with what you know.”

Many writers and bloggers in the HR-based social media space have been advocating that approach for years. I have been hearing pleas for people to change their resumes for at least five years, asking people to quit writing cliched, buzzword laden description of what their job was, and to instead focus on listing specific accomplishments. Tell people what you did – or can do – instead of what your job description said you were supposed to do.

Friedman cited Google as an example of a company that cares what you do with your knowledge, not the source of your knowledge, claiming that 14% of its employees don’t have college degrees. That isn’t actually true, but its close enough to make the point that employers should start looking past paper credentials – if they haven’t already – to create real problem-solving capabilities in their job descriptions. I’ve written about over-blown job descriptions twice before (here and here), imploring HR to consider more specific, actual needs and less boilerplate language.

Tom Friedman may think that employers don’t care about college, but for the most part that day isn’t here yet, even though it needs to be. I hope the HR pros in the audience got that point and quit asking about where your applicants went to school, and start caring about what they can do.

Your Job Descriptions Are Unhealthy

In my house, the longest ingredient label is on canned dog food.
In my house, the longest ingredient label is on canned dog food.

I am one of those people who block your way in the grocery store aisle while I carefully read the ingredient label on almost everything I take off the shelf.

I do it because I am pretending to be conscience about my health, and part of that awareness,  I’ve been told, is to avoid certain ingredients and additives that are going to kill me quickly.

I have realized lately that this is just so much bullshit, really, because truly healthy eating doesn’t require reading any labels. Not one. Because where is the healthiest food in the grocery store?

It’s in the produce section – where there are no ingredient labels on a bunch of spinach or carrots. Or in the fresh meat, poultry, or seafood section,because a piece of fish doesn’t need any label.  A loaf of bread has a relatively large list of ingredients, but a bag of flour describes just one, like  “unbleached white” or “whole wheat”.

The more over-engineered and over-processed a food item is, the longer the list of ingredients. The longer that list is, the more likely it is that you shouldn’t be eating the food if you are interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The same could be said of that staple of HR practice: the job description.

Read a standard job description from your basic company. It’s full of ingredients, most of which aren’t any more healthy or understandable than “sodium acid pyrophosphate” or “acesulfame potassium”.  It says things like “able to compile and analyze performance data that support decision-making for resource allocation and subsequent campaigns“. Or how about “able to develop a strategic decision-making, prioritization, and governance process“?


Those phrases came from an actual job description – found on the web – for a marketing director. I like this one better, for a similar job, but from a different company: Be an all-around marketing goddess (or god).

Simple. Understandable. Healthy.

Health experts will tell you to avoid eating foods that have more than 5 ingredients in their nutrition label. I have a feeling that most HR pros will argue to the death that there is no way they can limit their job description to 5 qualities or functions. Fair enough.  But if you are an HR pro, look at your job descriptions and ask yourself this:

Can I briefly and succinctly explain what this description/qualification is and why it is essential to this job?

If you can’t, get rid of it. If you can, reduce the qualification/description to less than 10 easy to understand words.

Your job description, and your company, will be healthier.


Most Job Descriptions Suck

An actual job description template found on the web


Last month a young woman named Cathryn Sloane posted a blog in the NextGen Journal titled “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25”. In this piece the author argued that because the youngest adults grew up with social media, it became part of their fabric in a way no other group could claim, which entitled that group to suspend more mundane requirements like work experience in order to be successful in that particular job.

As you might suspect, there was a huge backlash of comments about the arrogance, absurdity and ageism of the premise that only people under 25 could possibly be effective social media managers. The outcry was so great that the very next day the founder of NextGen Journal posted his own response, which continued to draw negative comments (“just as entitled as the original post”).  Finally, NextGen posted a rebuttal from an outsider that somewhat summarized why the oldsters were so upset with both posts.

But what all of these posts and counter-posts and comments seemed to miss was that Cathryn Sloane had a valid point. Yes, her youth, inexperience and poor communication skills made her miss that point entirely – but so, it seems, did all of the other writers. This is the point:

Job descriptions and requirements for social media managers suck.

HR writes countless job descriptions based on outdated templates that keep getting used over and over again, despite the fact that those templates are not based on any proven correlation between the stated requirement and the actual skills needed. Instead, you see advertisements that require things like this, an actual social media job posting on LinkedIn:

  • BS/BA: Marketing, Advertising, Communications
  • 3-5+ years Social Media experience
  • 3+ years Ad Agency Experience
  • Proficient in social media monitoring and analyitcal software/resources

Who cares if you have a BA in advertising? Your advertising degree could be 20 years old and irrelevant. Ad agency experience? What for? There are tons and tons of people on the net having extraordinary conversations via social media that have never set foot inside of an ad agency.  Instead, HR pros should create job requirements that really address what people need in order to be successful community managers:

  • Exceptional communication skills
  • A dynamic personality
  • Large amounts of creativity
  • Empathy, reason, intelligence

These may vary a bit from job to job or by brand, but the point is the same: successful social media management has a lot to do with personality and intelligent expression, and almost nothing to do with degrees and professional experience. And it certainly has nothing to do with age – a point missed entirely by poor Ms Sloane.

Job posts and ads for social media managers are not the only ones that suck, though.  Tom Brokaw, in his keynote closing address at the recent  massive Society for Human Resources Management conference (#SHRM12), told a story about a military captain returning from 12 years in Afghanistan. He is told by an HR pro that he has “no experience”. He replies to that criticism by listing all of the things he did in Afghanistan that were certainly key competencies for many jobs: he rooted out bad guys, he helped locals create better systems, he learned to live off the land and available resources, and he did it with minimal loss.

He got the job, but the sad truth is that in most HR departments that military captain would not have even landed an interview, because a ridiculous job description with boilerplate language that said nothing about real world skills and competencies would have kept him out the door. Job descriptions or posts would have asked for a college degree, with possible project management certification, a number of years at a Fortune 500 company, and all kinds of statistical proof of his claimed accomplishments.

And that really sucks.