Maslow Meets Marketing: The Psychology of Job Ads

Earlier this year, as has become something of an annual ritual, the HR and recruiting industry’s pundits (yes, they really exist) released their predictions of talent trendsin the year to come.

While these are often as stagnant as the industry they’re covering, aside from borrowing heavily from the same mantras as most Silicon Valley startups with the same promises of being more social, mobile and local, one of the most prevalent predictions on these lists stands out as particularly persistent in these previews, one that’s inevitably always included in these forecasts of the future.

These “thought leaders” look into the mists in their crystal ball and see a vision of the future that’s so obvious these oracles must declare, with absolute certainty, that “job descriptions will cease to exist!”

Then, as if to mock that same prescient certainty, they don’t. Instead, they survive, year after year after year. Despite some obvious flaws of the formats involved in both sides of the recruiting equation, the gap never seems to narrow, and things never seem to change.

While prognosticators may lament being proven wrong, the world somehow keeps on turning, recruiters still want to see your resume and HR departments the world over keep writing the same banal job descriptions. These are as inevitable as death and taxes, and frankly, far less fun than either.

As often as recruiters conveniently blame terrible resumes rolling in from unqualified applicants, or else offer advice on how to format your resume so it will stand out from all the other awful resumes out there, there doesn’t seem to be quite the same scrutiny surrounding the very thing that solicited those crappy CVs in the first place: job descriptions.

The average job description remains a mishmash of some sort of outdated version of the original job spec, a few edits from an enthusiastic new hiring manager and some sexier phrases co-opted from other companies’ career pages. When you stop and consider the amount of work that marketers put into simply writing the right headline or banner copy required to generate clicks and viewers, it’s mind boggling to think that recruiters expect anyone to consider making a major life change based on bland, cliched copy that’s even more trite than, say, those annual recruiting prediction posts.

Seriously. There has got to be a better way, right? Good news. There is.

The Candidate Hierarchy of Needs: A Recruiting Pyramid Scheme

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the Psychological Review.

In this seminal work, he posited a series of sequential drivers that must be satisfied in order to achieve the next. For example, when we’re starving to death, it’s unlikely we give a crap how our peers perceive us until we meet the more basic need for our survival. In this case, eating beats ego every day.

Maslow used the terms “physiological,” “safety,” “belonging,” “esteem,” and “self-actualization” to describe the general path by which human behavior generally moves.

With that in mind, if we use the format of a job ad as a means to motivate a reader to actually take action, we should borrow from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to ensure that our job postings are at a minimum, well rounded and engaging enough to drive the behavioral outcome we’re looking for.

It’s not really too much of a mental stretch to see how these stages apply to the underlying intrinsic motivationsa person might possess when determining whether or not to apply to a particular position, or even move them from casual viewer to active applicant and ultimately, optimally, a new hire.

At the least, we could use Maslow’s model to broaden the appeal of our job ads and hit less on qualifications and more on the motivations Maslow identified.

Compensating for The Basics

The lowest order in terms of motivation for any job seeker has to be salary. While compensation is foundational and obviously of some importance, it’s also the factor that’s the easiest to actualize and adjudicate accordingly.

Try putting the actual salary range of a position on the post instead of that nebulous “Depends on Experience” and voila! the majority of your applicants will at least know how much you’re willing to pay prior to investing time in the position. Assuming that your job is not unpaid or a front for some sort of shady operation like human trafficking or drug smuggling (in which case, your employer brand is probably pretty intriguing), starting at salary just makes sense. Promising adequate or even fair pay for a candidate’s work should never be the principal motivator you’re playing to as a recruiter.

Put simply, cash should never be your “ace in the hole.” If that’s the most enticing thing you’ve got to offer, it’s time to rethink the role. Try talking to some other people who already do the job and ask them why they like it.

Try gaining insights into the personas and professional aspirations (and actualizations) of the people who enjoy doing the job, and chances are, those will align with the same things that are likely to resonate most with the candidates you’re looking for. They’re also likely to overlap with what you, as an employer, are looking for when you’re looking for candidates.

Third party recruiters and staffing agencies tend to be the ones whose job ads are built around the bottom line, focusing on salary as the biggest incentive that a position has to offer. “Java Developer – $90,000+!” is a great indicator that the person posting the job doesn’t have any idea about what the people doing that job either really do or really care about.

They don’t get the distinct differentiated drivers of the candidates they’re looking for, which means that they’re not doing anything but throwing shit to see what sticks, as the saying goes.

Always Practice Safe Reqs

A lot of job posts make us stop at salary – there may be manifold information or details given about the employer, but these are generic and boilerplate, more explanatory than enlightening. “You will write code and fix bugs” are statements which could be true of any developer in any organization. The key is to make this personal – which is where Maslow’s second step, safety, comes in.

Safety, for job seekers, may take the form of a full time role versus a contract gig or the security of your company as an entity that’s built to last. These can be addressed early on, from startups simply mentioning that they’re “VC funded,” for example, or larger corporations pointing to how long they’ve been around or what they’ve accomplished.

“Safety” should be imparted and accepted with the same immediacy as salary.

If you don’t make the job seeker feel their basic needs are being met (for instance you’re offering a lower than expected salary or indeterminate contract length), then chances are they’ll self select out of the process. That’s a good thing at this stage. After all, remember that a great job ad isn’t about appealing to the masses, it’s about gaining the interest of the few relevant professionals who are going to be the right match for you. Relevance trumps reach.

A growing number of companies are following in the footsteps of the larger tech employers, offering a bewildering number of perks and free incentives to their employees in the hopes of enticing top talent. These are the hyperbolic tales of unlimited free food, dogs at work, on site masseuses and free flowing champagne always on ice next to the foosball table in the “ideation room.”

Which sounds great in theory – who doesn’t want these things? But in practice, this is a hurdle a lot of job ads fail to overcome. Promising money and perks are a great way to have someone change small stuff like which bank to open an account at or whether to switch internet service providers, but fall flat when it comes to getting someone to change employers in most cases. Job security should be implied in any job description, period.

Perks and benefits are nice to have in the periphery – they’re just not enough.

Putting An ‘I’ In Teamwork

Maslow’s third tier was “belonging,” or “love,” actually. For a job ad, this means having to convey a sense of being a place where a candidate will feel accepted and like they belong. Too many job ads fear to tread on this ground. We stop at the inanimate perks and practical stuff like job requirements and don’t consider the social side that inevitably accompanies any job.

Belonging, in job ads, is best conveyed by showing them the people that a potential new hire will work with. Humans are social creatures (for the most part), and actually benefit from interacting with others. Who wants to spend 8 hours a day trapped in a cube farm treading the same carpet as people you hate?

Conversely, everyone wants to work with that ex-colleague or former manager who inspired them and championed their professional growth, or join a team of renowned subject matter experts in their field. Making a job ad generic and impersonal (e.g. “You will work with our team of developers”) risks losing that essence of what makes that team unique.

Talking about a job from the point of view of becoming part of a top notch team instead of becoming just another butt in a seat provides the opportunity to sell successes to candidates while gaining engagement by selling the aspirational nature of working with a pedigreed potential peer group.

In the startup world, it’s normal to see job ads showcasing the founders’ experience at companies like Google or Facebook as a way to simultaneously show off their blue chip background while borrowing from the perceived benchmark for quality talent associated with their previous employers.

Another consideration for the ‘team’ level of a job ad is how the team is organized, and how that team functions when working together. A job might be more attractive to a potential applicant if it explicitly states stuff like the team doesn’t like to hold lengthy meetings or works closely across other units or areas of the bigger business.

There are some great examples of companies getting this right that, from a recruitment messaging point of view, are simply brilliant. Check out Spotify’s outstanding video on engineering culture below for a case study in how to effectively speak to the innate need for “belonging” Maslow described.

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