Each stage of your recruitment process should be designed to help you find the ideal candidate for the role and your organisation.
One of the first things an employer should do when recruiting is to write a person specification. A person specification is a written description of the ideal candidate for the role. It should set out the skills, knowledge, qualifications and experience the employer considers are needed for someone to perform the role to the required standard.
The person specification is generally written along with the job description, which details the purpose and tasks of the role being recruited.
The person specification is a helpful tool for employers when writing job advertisements and briefing recruitment agencies and can act as a useful reference when selecting and shortlisting candidates.
Employers will need to ensure any criteria they specify within the person specification are justifiable and necessary for the role in question. Including criteria that would not be relevant or required for the role may result in restricting the pool of candidates and potentially exposing the organisation to recruitment discrimination claims.
Why use a person specification?
The person specification should help ensure all applicants are scrutinised systematically using the same criteria and ensure that your selected shortlist can be justified on objective criteria if these are later scrutinised, for example, following a discrimination complaint. This helps to remove bias, personal interest and prejudice, all of which can be problematic for recruiting successfully.
An effective person specification will help candidates to assess themselves and their suitability for the role and the organisation before they submit an application for you to consider. This can help to avoid excessive numbers of applications from potentially tenuous applicants.
The person specification is also a good indicator of an organisation’s policy and approach to equality. Employment law is very clear about discrimination. A person specification makes sure employers are assessing candidates on their abilities relating to the role, and not for example in relation to protected characteristics.
A person specification and job description can also be used internally to form the basis of future staff development, promotions or appraisals.
Selection criteria requirements
To avoid issues of discrimination within your recruitment process, ensure your candidate selection criteria are:
Your criteria must be specific as opposed to general. This ensures that the person specification adequately reflects the role’s requirements. It also helps to make sure that applicants understand the qualifications, skills and experience you are looking for.
In practice, employers commonly divide the person specification into those qualities which are ‘essential’ and those which are merely ‘desirable’. This enables employers to be explicit in what they want and how the applicant matches these criteria.
Additionally, clarity of specification helps maintain consistency of selection decisions for shortlisting and avoids confusion for interview panel members. For example, the criteria ‘good communication skills’ are too vague and cover a wide range of possibilities. Try to specify the level and nature of communication skills that the role requires and adapt the assessment and interview stages accordingly, for example, effective presentation skills, report writing skills or the ability to draft complex correspondence, or the ability to converse with a diverse range of people at all levels.
Selection criteria must be justifiable in relation to the specific job tasks and requirements. Non-justifiable criteria could be deemed discriminatory and prevent suitable candidates applying for the position. For example, a requirement for an administrator to hold a degree may be deemed unjustifiable since any competent, experienced administrator could perform the functions of the role effectively without a degree.
A good person specification does not discriminate and allows for diversity whilst being tailored specifically towards the requirements of the job. The listed knowledge and skills needed for the position must be related to the position.
Be clear about the knowledge the candidate requires, and whether this needs to be only an awareness or a demonstrable quality.
Avoid use of ageist language such as ‘young graduate’ or use of any marginal or unnecessary requirements e.g. a driving license may exclude applicants with disabilities.
When you are writing your selection criteria, you need to consider how you will assess how each applicant measures against the criteria. This could be asking them a series of specific questions or asking them to provide examples from their previous working experience.
Selection criteria, in general, must be fair, objective, and directly relevant to the requirements of the role. Discriminatory statements or language concerning ethnicity, race, colour, nationality, marital status, age, religious belief, sexual orientation, transgender, and disability must not be used. For example, a requirement that a candidate must have English or be a native English speaker may be considered by an employment tribunal as discriminatory on the basis of race, unless it can be objectively justified.
Writing a person specification: what to include and what to avoid
The common approach is the use ‘core competencies’ to tailor your person specification to the role and to your organisation. As stated above, using the criteria ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ allows you to clearly set out the type of person you are looking for.
Competencies could include:
- Languages – if the position requires specific language skills
- Physical attributes – if the position requires good eyesight, or height, for example. It should be noted that these must be a justified requirement to complete the tasks within a role, not merely a preference.
- Attainments – this includes qualifications, grades, experience and managerial positions previously held.
- Soft skills – public speaking, relationship building, time management
- Job specific capabilities – use of software or programmes or team management
- Aptitudes – communication skills, numeracy, ability to work as part of a team
- Personal qualities – unsocial hours, shift working and the ability to be flexible
Although you may want applicants to have prior experience, it is worth thinking about whether the role really requires a specific number of years’ experience and whether such as stipulation would constitute age discrimination, particularly against younger applicants who may not have as many years experience compared with older applicants.
Instead of judging candidates based on the number of years, you could ask them to show experience in a set task, for example. Being too rigid in this regard could rule out a very talented candidate who has gained valuable experience in a wide variety of tasks within a short period of time in favour of someone who may have more years’ experience but in a limited capacity.
Education, qualifications and training
In many professions, it is a legal requirement for the candidate to have certain qualifications in order to practice. In other roles, it may be that it is impossible to undertake certain tasks without having first being trained to do them.
An individual who has no formal qualifications may have worked in a relevant sector previously and developed the necessary knowledge and skills.
In every case, you will need to determine whether a particular qualification is the only way that an applicant could show they can do the job.
Personal qualities and discrimination
You should try to be objective and ask yourself whether these qualities and characteristics are directly relevant to the role, and if there is potential for them to be discriminatory.
To avoid discrimination, you should try to describe the tasks that are involved and let the applicant judge for themselves. There are limited situations where it is lawful to discriminate, where it can be objectively justified. For example, looking for someone who is strong and fit could indirectly discriminate against particular candidates, but for an employer such as a the fire service, it would be justifiable given the nature of the work.
This could include information about potential flexibility of the role in terms of where the role is based, working hours, and any travel required. You should make sure such requirements are all genuinely necessary for the role. Avoid requiring applicants to be able to drive unless absolutely necessary. Setting out a need for the ability to travel around a specific area will set out what you need and will allow those candidates who cannot drive or are disabled to propose how they could do the job without a car.
Take care over the phrases and words you use. It might be that your perfectly reasonable job description just reads badly or sets the wrong tone. Also, remember to split the person specification into ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria. Essential criteria are those qualities or qualifications which the applicant must possess in order to do the job. Anyone who cannot meet these criteria can be automatically ruled out. Desirable criteria, although not essential to carry out the job, a candidate who meets these criteria is likely to perform the job better. These qualities can help you choose between good applicants who meet the specifications.
Tips for writing a person specification
Try to be realistic. It is a rarity for any applicant to tick all boxes. Ensure you know your must-haves from your nice-to-haves before starting.
Identify existing skill gaps. The most successful teams are comprised of individuals who bring something different to your company. Think about your weak spots and seek out those in the desired skills section.
Consider how you will assess the criteria. Can the applicant be tested to demonstrate the desired attributes in an interview situation? If you cannot think of an example, it may be unfair to expect the applicant to do so.
Check your tone of voice. It is sensible to get another person within your team to read your person specification to check all points are covered appropriately and cannot cause offence.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists can help with all aspects of recruitment. Working closely with our employment law colleagues, we advise on best practice to optimise hiring procedures while reducing the risk of workplace discrimination. For help and advice, speak to our experts.
Person specification FAQs
What is a person specification?
A person specification describes the personal attributes that a business is seeking in a potential employee. It usually accompanies a job description and sets out the qualities and qualifications being sought from applicants to ensure they are suitable for the role.
What is a person specification and job description?
A person specification is a profile of the ideal candidate required to fulfil the role being advertised, whilst a job description is a written statement of educational qualifications and technical skills required to perform the role.
How do you answer a person specification?
Employers tend to respond positively to candidates who have done their research on the job and the organisation. A person specification allows a potential applicant to self-assess their skills and experience against it and decide whether they are suitable for the job before applying.
Last updated: 27 September 2023