Arts administrators: Hiring employees (2003)

Arts administrator and recruitment consultant Hope London offers advice.

Hope London
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship

| 8 May 2011
This article was previously published in Arts Management Weekly in 2003 with the title “Write for the job”.


There is an old saying that you’d better watch out what you ask for, because you might get it. Although this bit of wisdom has probably been around a lot longer than most arts managers have, it could have been invented specifically to deal with one important aspect of an arts manager’s responsibilities— formulating job descriptions and person specifications for the recruitment of personnel.

When a vacancy arises or a new position is created, an advertisement usually follows. A description must therefore be written of the job and of the hypothetical person with the characteristics, experience and qualifications required to perform it successfully. This description forms the basis of advertising copy and of those documents known as the job description and the person (or candidate) specification.

What you ask for on these pieces of paper has far-reaching implications. The job description and person specification have immense scope and function, well beyond publicising the position. For example, they determine the nature of the candidates you attract (prospective applicants will rule themselves in or out based on the contents). In addition they provide the standards by which you evaluate candidates, in shortlisting and at interview. Furthermore they provide (for the candidate ultimately selected) the foundation upon which the postholder’s success will be built— ideally, it lets them know what exactly will be expected of them, including standards for future job appraisals, and for setting targets and objectives. Finally, they serve as a benchmark to which the interview panel, the candidates, and everyone else involved should refer at each step of the recruitment process.

Writing a job description/person specification provides the perfect occasion for re-examining organisational aims and objectives as well, and for visualising the position in question and its day-to-day functions in terms of the overall scheme. Some interesting discoveries may be unearthed in the process:

  • With regard to the job description, the vacancy may need to be re-defined before it is simply filled.
  • In the person specification, attributes characterised as essential may not be really necessary and may bar from application people who could do the job very well (this is especially important from an equal opportunities perspective).
  • Related issues may emerge such as the need for structural reviews, pay reviews or job evaluation on an organisational level.

    It should be apparent by now that the job description and person specification deserve and require time, care and thought. Ironically, it is not uncommon to find them subjected instead to rote, superficial treatment which may lead to a failure of the recruitment process to produce the desired results. Typical pitfalls include:
  • Using old job descriptions or those from other departments, with new title and salary plugged in.
  • Using general, idealised statements of purpose and having vague, over-broad goals— often compounded by the use of stereotypical jargon— which fail to articulate the actual purpose and nature of the job.
  • Shying away from describing the real challenges the post holder will face.
  • Specifying persons with ’essential’ requirements which aren’t necessary in practice. For example, requiring five years of experience rules out someone with three or four years of precisely relevant experience; or a degree may be a prerequisite although it is not actually needed for effective performance of the job.
  • Having unrealistic expectations for the job itself. For example, the organisation may be aware of what it needs to do but isn’t actually doing— so, an attempt is made to solve the problem by putting all these things into one job description— the “panacea syndrome”.
  • Having unrealistic expectations of the postholder. In this case there is probably no one person with all the skills to fulfill the job description. And if there were, their first priority would have to be raising the funds to employ an assistant— the “searching for a god syndrome”.
  • Having an unrealistic relationship, between the salary on offer and the actual demands of the post. This can pose problems which can work in either direction. If the salary is too low, qualified applicants may be scarce for obvious reasons. But if it is too high, the people you are trying to reach may not apply because they think they are under-qualified. You could end up with over-qualified people who may become bored or try to make more of the post than you actually want them to.
  • Describing the “wrong” job, one which is not actually what the organisation requires. For instance, asking for a marketing manager when a well-organised secretary for the marketing department would do the job, supplemented perhaps by a part-time or freelance person to handle press and publicity.

Fortunately, you. can take a different approach, working from the ground up to create a job description/ person specification that will provide a framework for the post and maximise your chances of success.

Consult with colleagues, including those who will be working directly with the new appointee. Examine existing structures, priorities, and methods of working.

Ask a lot of questions: what is the post designed to achieve? Whether the post is existing or newly created, and is it what the organisation really needs? Get the person specification down to its most basic elements— What kinds of experience, special knowledge and training are absolutely essential and why? What personal qualities are needed? Why did the last postholder leave? If there were inherent problems in the job, what is needed to, overcome them? Is additional support necessary or could someone with different attitudes or abilities make it work? What sorts of activities do you want the postholder to engage in on a day to day basis? If possible, get a consensus on what the new person will be expected to do.

If you ask the wrong questions, you may just get what you asked for— either the wrong candidate, few suitable candidates, or people who are qualified to do a job different from the one you had in mind. On the other hand, spending the necessary time and effort at the outset will yield insights into the nature of the proposed post and its role in achieving the objectives of the organisation, enabling you to draft a more accurate job description and person specification.

By asking for a candidate with the qualities and attributes you really want and need, you will increase the likelihood of an effective recruitment.