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Writing a person specification: a key to effective recruitment

Creating a person specification will clarify your recruitment needs and protect you against potential discrimination claims, writes Fiona Dalziel

Create your interview structure based on the elements in the person specification (image: iStock)
Create your interview structure based on the elements in the person specification (image: iStock)

It is tempting, when recruiting practice staff (almost always under time pressure), to take short-cuts with what may appear to be the creation of unnecessary documentation.

Writing a person specification could seem appear to be a case in point. Surely, you know what kind of person you are looking for? This is a high-risk strategy and could put the practice at risk of a claim of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

A person specification is key to effective recruitment and should be used in tandem with a job description. Not only will it help ensure you do not discriminate against candidates with any of the nine protected characteristics, it will help you clarify what you want from your new staff member and prevent you wasting precious time and resources recruiting the wrong person.

Protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Defining criteria

A person specification describes the activities and competences related to the activities which are required for the job. Each of the elements in it must relate directly back to the job description and will come under one of the following headings:

  • Skills
  • Abilities
  • Experience
  • Qualifications
  • Aptitudes

It is not necessary to define criteria under each of these headings; different job descriptions will cover varying areas and, for example, while you may not need specific qualifications for a receptionist, you will require them for most clinical roles. Be careful not to specify qualifications where equivalent experience or an equivalent qualification could be acceptable. 

Try to avoid reference to length of service. For example, specifying ‘five years’ experience’ could lead to a claim of age discrimination on the grounds of a candidate being too young to have that amount of experience or sex/maternity  discrimination on the grounds of a candidate having had a career break.  Instead, concentrate on the type and quality of the experience.

Each criterion must be reasonable and must be justified, objectively, in relation to the job description. In rare circumstances, some practices may recruit based on the protected characteristics. This would be termed a ‘genuine occupational requirement’ and practices considering this should take advice before proceeding with recruitment on this basis.

Spend time with everyone involved in the recruitment process defining whether your criteria are ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. Candidates who do not have all the ‘essential’ criteria will be excluded automatically from the selection process. 

Defining a lot of criteria as ‘essential’ will ensure your recruitment process is more streamlined, but may exclude candidates who could gain relevant qualifications or experience on the job.

Selecting candidates

Use the elements in the person specification to write your job advert. Do not introduce elements into the advert which are not reflected in the person specification.

Create candidate selection checklists and the interview structure based on the elements in the person specification. Consider how you will assess each element and ensure that everyone involved in the selection process is clear about how to conduct a selection process which is fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory and that they are aware of candidates’ rights of access to selection documentation under the Data Protection Act.

Person specification checklist:


  • Ensure you can justify your criteria in terms of the job in question.
  • Think about actual skills unless a specific qualification is really needed.
  • Include any special requirements of the post – these should be related to the job, justifiable and non-discriminatory.
  • Differentiate between ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria.
  • Use the person specification as a basis for the job advert.
  • Consider how you will assess whether candidates have the criteria you have specified as ‘essential’.


  • Specify a rigid amount of experience required.
  • Make assumptions about who will be able to do the job.
  • Specify requirements that are not needed for the job (for example, specifying a driving licence when driving is not essential).

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