Associations and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Job Listing

A small company's tough-talking job ad has earned it plenty of brickbats. But the ad also reveals a real problem with the hiring process.

People can disagree about what makes for a good job listing. But there’s a sure-fire way to know you’ve written a bad one: It’s gone viral.

Employers wind up frustrated that they put in so much time, and the interns wonder why a job wasn’t forthcoming.

Such is the case with Dalkey Archive Press. The independent avant-garde publisher drew a lot of attention to itself last week when it posted a listing for a handful of internships that could potentially become full-time jobs. Nobody takes an entry-level gig at a small publisher expecting glory, and unpaid internships are an onerous but unsurprising fact of life in that industry. But it’s hard to justify an ad that says things like—well, let’s just go to the long but seriously-you-should-read-the-whole-thing blockquote:

The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who… look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.

The ad went on to list some causes for immediate dismissal, including “being unavailable at night or on the weekends,” “giving unsolicited advice about how to run things,” “surfing the internet while at work,” and “creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument.” Needless to say, Dalkey received an avalanche of criticism, including a series of media responses and at at least one satirical Twitter feed.

And yet this is not a post about crisis management. Dalkey cofounder John O’Brien told the Irish Times that the ad’s rhetoric was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but that he was unrepentant about the high expectations conveyed by it. “[M]y 25 years of experience with interns has been very mixed,” he says. “The most common problem being that they aren’t prepared, don’t know what to expect, hope that a job might be at the end of the rainbow, and yet don’t have a clue as to what an employer is looking for. Employers wind up frustrated that they put in so much time, and the interns wonder why a job wasn’t forthcoming.”

I’m not enough of a counterintuition ninja to argue that Dalkey’s dumb ad was in fact a brilliant one; you have to be some kind of hardcore Dalkey fan with the bank account of a prince and the temperament of a robot to endure the gig as the ad describes it. But O’Brien does make a fair point: Job ads in general, and internship ads in particular, can be awful at clarifying how candidates are expected to perform. Part of the problem is in the stiff, institutionalized language that defines many listings: Applicants are asked to explain what they’ve optimized, operationalized, implemented, and synergized as a function of job-role initiatives, past experience, and strategically deployed professional-development opportunities. So employers get back resumes thick with BS-bingo words that set a cloud of fog over what a candidate is actually excited about.

Dalkey’s ad was trying to break through that dull noise of job-ad speak: We only want people who are really passionate about working at Dalkey Archive Press. Its mistake was in pushing that point to a ridiculous extreme, to the point where the only serious response can be: Who’d ever want to work here?

Writing a job ad that draws out passionate candidates is hard in any context. It may be more difficult with associations. Liking the industry your association serves is nice, but it may not be your foremost concern amid the day-to-day responsibilities of the office. Passion for nonprofit work isn’t quite the same thing as passion for working for a 501(c)(3) membership organization. And it requires a supremely graceful HR manager to write a listing that encapsulates the complexities of life at a small-staff association, where—all together now—everybody wears a lot of hats.

And yet it’s your job as a leader to attract the best talent—and to articulate to your HR and senior staff how “best talent” should be defined. How do you do it without completely breaking down the application process (and satisfying the keyword demands of online job sites)? What do you tell candidates about you in the ad, and how do you want them to answer?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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