Help Wanted: Boring Jobs

Human resources offices need to spice up their vacancy postings.

For years, some of the worst writing in government has been found in job vacancy announcements. The first impression for potential hires usually begins with the words "The incumbent serves as. . . " and goes on to describe the dull duties of a cog in the bureaucratic machine.

To most of us, the word "incumbent" means the person currently holding an office. Yet announcements targeted at future employees are riddled with the word: "The incumbent of this position serves on a psychiatric treatment team with an assignment of mentally ill patients" or "Incumbent prepares, wraps and displays sandwiches."

This has always seemed odd. If you were trying to attract applicants to a position, wouldn't you tell them what they would do after they got the job? Some federal recruiters have thought of that. The job summary for a position at the Health and Human Services Department, for example, begins: "Become a part of the department that touches the lives of every American! At the Department of Health and Human Services, you can give back to your community, state and country by making a difference in the lives of Americans everywhere."

But a read through vacancy announcements shows there's still a lot of work to do. There are several reasons for the high snooze factor. Various laws and court cases have led to required language in some postings. Human resources offices rely on boilerplate language to make their jobs easier. And there's a natural tendency in government to write bureaucratically.

Some federal jobs truly are boring. Even those with the potential to be interesting often end up being dull, sometimes because managers envision them that way.

People join government for the job security and flexible schedules, but also because they want to make a difference. If employees don't feel their work matters, then the job should be restructured. No pretty description can make a boring job interesting. But assuming a position is interesting, there's no reason not to convey that. Look at this announcement for a job at the Office of Personnel Management: "Our work has far-reaching impact, and your ideas and recommendations will influence and improve the way the federal government recruits, hires and retains its people." If that's true, what human resources type wouldn't want to work there?

Reformers have been calling on agencies to spruce up their vacancy announcements for years. The Merit Systems Protection Board put out a report urging improvements three years ago. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service has been pushing better job descriptions since it was launched in 2001.

More and more human resources offices have gotten the message. But many postings are still a big bore. Here's a first step managers can demand the next time they have a job opening to announce: Throw the incumbent out.

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