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Creating Effective Job Descriptions

Filed under Hiring Workers. Fact checked on January 30, 2013.

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Job descriptions are an excellent tool in the hiring process for both you and your prospective employees. They can also provide proof as to the essential functions of a job for purposes of complying with federal employment laws.

You've made the decision that you need to hire someone, perhaps for the first time, and you have completed the process to determine what the qualifications are for the position. The next step is to take that knowledge and use it to write a job description.

The job description is the written outline of what the job you're hiring for entails, based on either your needs as you see them or the research that you've done via job analysis.

Are job descriptions legally required? No, job descriptions are not required by law for any employer. However, they are good to have for several reasons. Job descriptions help in:

  • interviewing and selecting employees
  • orienting new employees
  • evaluating the performance of an employee
  • motivating employees
  • comparing pay between employees
  • providing evidence that your practices are fair, should you ever have to defend them in court

Defining the Job Description

Job descriptions don't have to be complicated. There are ways that you can create a simple job description without spending a lot of time researching and writing. For example, you can make a list of activities to be involved on the job, and you can rank them in importance.

If you're hiring one person, perhaps your first employee, you don't need to go to all the trouble of writing a formal job description unless you want to. Still, some of the uses of a job description can be helpful to you.

The way to get the benefit without all the trouble and time is to return to basics. A big part of creating a job description is common sense. Figure out what you need or want the position to do, and then figure out what someone needs to know and understand to do it well.

Hiring your first employee or filling an existing position? If you're writing your first job description for your first employee, you will have to start from scratch. What do you need done? Sit down and make a wish list and go from there.

There are some simple job analysis methods you can employ if you don't want to spend a lot of time.

Think Ahead

Don't think only in the short term. If your business grows or gets more customers, which tasks would you like your employee or employees to do that you may not need done right now?

You can take a step-by-step approach to help you figure out what you need and want in an employee.

  • Just jot down a key word or two for each task that will clearly mean something to you when you use this information to write your job description. For example, a task would be "greeting customers."
  • Rank the task in terms of its importance.
  • List the activities involved in doing each task. For example, using "greeting customers" as the task, activities might include answering phones, welcoming customers into the office, and answering questions.
  • List the skills necessary to perform that activity. Using the example above, skills might be "pleasant phone voice," "strong speaking skills," "good organizational skills," and "a working knowledge of the business."
Work Smart

You can use what you come up with as a guide for recruiting and interviewing.

Check out the case study below to give you an idea of how to formulate a simple job description.

Case Study

Rose Fern runs a flower shop. Business is brisk and she has more customers than she can accommodate on her own. Rose decides that she needs to hire an employee, her first, to help out.

Here is a list of some of the things that Rose would like her employee to do:

  • answer the phone

  • greet customers

  • write up orders

  • put together the simpler baskets and arrangements

  • deliver flowers

Rose writes down all the points above and starts to notice patterns from the list. By using her list, Rose concludes that she needs to hire someone who has:

  • a professional phone manner, for dealing well with customers

  • strong writing and speaking skills, for communicating with customers

  • a creative flair, for designing and putting together flower arrangements

  • organizational skills, to balance all these tasks at once

If you have to comply with federal or state employment laws (because you have at least the minimum number of employees required to trigger the laws) and you decide to have written job descriptions, you're likely to require a little more guidance. In creating a more detailed job description, you need to know what information should be in a job description and perhaps even more importantly, what should not go in a job description.

What to Include and What to Leave Out of Job Descriptions

There are as many different formats for job descriptions as there are jobs, but there are some basic pieces of information that most job descriptions have. Include them in yours, if you feel they are appropriate.

Tools to Use

Available among the Business Tools is a sample job description form that you can use as a tool to assist you in writing your own job description. Keep in mind that there is no set form for a job description, and you can add and delete items in this form.

Job descriptions can include any or all of the following elements:

  • The date the job description was written.The job description should always be up to date. Rewrite it to reflect changes as often as needed. Good times to check the descriptions are when hiring someone new for the job or at an existing employee's performance appraisal or salary increase time.
  • Job status. Salaried or hourly? Full-time or part-time? Temporary or permanent?
  • Position title. Make sure your position titles reasonably and accurately reflect the actual title of the job. A job title shouldn't be inflated or pretentious if the job doesn't warrant it. For example, don't call a maintenance worker a "custodial consultant!"
Tip

A sex-based job title such as salesman, is not necessarily by itself discriminatory. But if you're taken to court for alleged discrimination, you're better off if all titles are gender-neutral. This is especially true if it's easy to do — like changing "salesman" to "salesperson."

  • Job summary. This section should contain a brief summary of the information found in more detail elsewhere in the description. A summary shouldn't be more than a few sentences long and should explain the main purposes and functions of the job.
  • Detailed duties and responsibilities. This is a more detailed description of the duties involved and separates the essential functions of the job from the incidental job functions for purposes of the ADA.
  • Skills required to perform the job. This can include compensable factors such as education, experience, and abilities.
  • Importance of job duties and tasks. Ranking the duties from most important to least important is a good way to convey this information since the task that consumes the most time is not necessarily the most important task. You can rank on a scale of one to 10, for example.
  • When and how often the tasks are performed.You might want to mention that certain tasks are only done once a month, quarter, year etc.
  • Job environment. Job environments can impact significantly on workers' motivation and job satisfaction. For example, it's a good idea to include in job descriptions factors like the fact that the work is done off-premises, or mention the existence of hazards, noises, physical proximity of other employees, and opportunities to communicate with other employees. Including these factors in the job description helps job applicants better understand the requirements of the job and helps you select the best candidate for the position.

If you will be allowing your employees to see written job descriptions, make sure that the last item in the list of job duties is something like "and any other task assigned by the supervisor." This gives you the freedom to change duties over time, and prevents employees from complaining "that task is not in my job description."

Think Ahead

When you're writing your description, try to put some thought into how you see this position growing as your business grows. You don't want someone who can just do the job today but can't change and grow with the needs of the business. Think in terms of finding people with qualities and skills who can help your business reach its long-term goals.

What Not to Put in Job Descriptions

Just as there are pieces of information you will want to include when creating a job description, there is information you should exclude.

If you're creating a written job description, it's generally not necessary to list any duty that does not take up more than 5 percent of the job holder's time.

However, if there is some aspect of a job's duties that occur periodically or even just once a year, but has a large impact on the business, it should be included.

Warning

Job descriptions should describe the job, not the person who fills it. Your job descriptions should not, for example, say that the person doing the job must be of a certain race, religion, or gender, unless it is a bona fide occupational qualification. Job descriptions should not make any mention of age or marital status requirements, either.

Most importantly, make sure that your job descriptions do not include anything that might be considered discriminatory.

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