Our job spec dos and don’ts, inspired by Dominic Cummings

When Dominic Cummings, chief aide to the Prime Minister, posted job ads on his blog recently, it caused quite a stir.

We noticed that in spite of the blog’s mad moments (appealing to ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’ and promising to ‘bin’ people within weeks if they don’t fit), Cummings makes some commendable linguistic choices that HR pros could learn from.

To avoid inflating his ego too much, though, let’s kick off with how not to do it…

Try not to be exploitative

Brazenly admitting to exhausting your staff beyond the point of irreparable psychological damage is a definite no-no. In the brief for his personal assistant, he goes all Dom Wears Prada on us. ‘You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all.’ Steady on, Dom. Where’s the work-life balance?

Stay on track

Rambling’s never a good look, and Cummings definitely derails his point on more than one occasion. He actually admits to his own folly, when after a three-paragraph ramble about failed projects, he starts the next paragraph with ‘Anyway…’. You can almost hear his broken cogs spring off the page. When you’re hiring, try not to fall into the same trap – keep your writing concise and focused.

Give your quotes some context

Cummings quotes five of his favourite thinkers in a pompous, irrelevant epigraph that he doesn’t bother to explain. It’s left to the reader to join the dots as they read on. If you want to use a quote in your writing to back up a point, then great. Just make sure the reader doesn’t have to work to realise why it’s included. Used poorly or too often, these allusions can be distracting instead of supportive.

Okay. Now we’ve brought him down a peg or two, let’s take a look at the good stuff…

Choose an open and honest tone

Too often job specs slip into internal jargon and the human disappears from behind the words. Not Cummings. ‘We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.’ With this approach, the applicant gets a much stronger sense of the person they’ll be working for.

Try something unusual

Job specs tend not to evolve with the role. The same old ads are wheeled out year on year with the same tired structure – a brief summary of the role followed by a list of must dos and must haves. Cummings throws out the formula, and to good effect. ‘Those applying must watch Bret Victor’s talks and study Dynamic Land. If this excites you, then apply; if not, then don’t.’ Hiring managers can use these specs as an opportunity to show off their company’s personality. Share a quote, a study, a story: something unexpected to get the best candidates interested.

Use more ‘you’, less ‘we’

It’s a common gaffe in job specs for companies to talk too much about themselves. Off the back of the election, Cummings could’ve waxed lyrical about Boris’ romp to victory, The Tories’ huge majority, Brexit oven-ready, blah blah. Instead, he puts the candidate centre stage. ‘You should be able to explain to other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists the ideas in such papers, discuss what could be useful for our projects, synthesise ideas for other data scientists, and apply them to practical problems.’ Next time your HR teams are updating your role profiles, try doing the same. It lets the applicant picture themselves in the job and get a stronger sense of whether they’re the right fit.

We’re curious to see what happens next, and whether Cummings will stay true to his promise to ‘post some random things over the next few weeks and see what bounces back’. In any case, even if your company isn’t looking to hire a graduate Rasputin, there are some tricks and techniques here that you can borrow for your own job specs. And definitely a few habits you can ‘bin’.

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