Beyond the Help Wanted Ad

Nov 5, 2012

Job descriptions serve a higher purpose than just recruiting and posting a position. They play strategic and tactical roles in any organization. While job descriptions take time and effort to create, and you may be concerned about an employee’s claim that “that’s not in my job description,” there are very compelling and real business cases for creating them in your company. Job descriptions are the documents and communication tools that clarify which positions in the company will have specific responsibilities, and for each position, what is required in those roles to meet individual and business objectives.

Strategic, Tactical, and Compliance Implications

Job descriptions should:

  • Describe the objectives, tasks, duties, functions, and responsibilities of a position
  • Outline the details of the specific type of work, and how the work is completed, including frequency
  • Explain the purpose of the work as it relates to the company’s mission and goals
  • Provide qualifications including education and experience, required skills, reporting relationships, and working conditions

On a strategic level, job descriptions align people with company goals and vision. They help determine organizational structure, evaluate how needs will be met, and clarify individual jobs and how each job fits into the company as a whole. For example, if one of your company’s goals is to increase sales, you will want to ensure that both your sales and service departments understand their functions; and that individual roles are clearly defined.  Often the delineation of sales and service roles are unclear, and vary from company to company, making the strategic objective of increasing sales more difficult to achieve.

With well-written job descriptions, you and your management team will ensure that all roles and responsibilities are defined, that relationships and expectations among individuals and between departments are clarified, and that there is an understanding of who is responsible for each aspect of your company’s business plans and processes. This is done through careful analysis and thorough review of each position and the relationship of one position to another with employees and managers. It is helpful to create and review a class of job descriptions within the same timeframe. This ensures that, taken together, the jobs cover what the department is looking to accomplish and in turn, satisfy the goals and needs of the organization.

On a tactical level, well-written job descriptions play a role throughout the employee life cycle. They are a critical tool for a wide range of employee-related functions such as recruiting, determining salary levels, conducting performance reviews, establishing titles and pay grades, training and career planning, and ensuring regulatory compliance. While there is no specific company size that determines when it becomes a good practice to create job descriptions, they can be important in any size company for the purposes of hiring, setting standards, and evaluating performance. Job descriptions create agreement around consistent and fair expectations between managers and staff.

Specifically, job descriptions will:

  • Clarify specific job requirements and qualifications, which leads to better hiring decisions
  • Define company expectations of employees regarding their individual roles and responsibilities
  • Delineate work assignments, serving to detect overlaps or gaps in positions, and drive realignment of jobs as necessary
  • Define performance standards and performance measurement
  • Clarify expectations for performance evaluation and corrective action
  • Classify jobs internally to maintain equitable and competitive pay programs, and to benchmark positions in the external market
  • Establish job-related training and development

Avoid Employee Disputes

Compliance: While job descriptions are not generally required by law, they may play a direct role and serve as evidence for employment disputes. Two laws in particular, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), call for well-written job descriptions.

Under the ADA, a disabled individual must be able to perform the "essential functions" of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations. Employers who use job descriptions have the opportunity to set forth those essential job functions in writing to avoid areas of doubt and controversy. Job descriptions must accurately describe or list those essential job functions, as well as working conditions, tools and equipment used, and physical requirements.

Under the FLSA and similar state laws that relate to overtime pay provisions, job descriptions are used to categorize positions as "exempt" or "non-exempt." Employers must accurately describe primary job duties to classify all positions properly. In New York State, the “exempt” or “non-exempt” status of each position must clearly be indicated on the Wage Theft Prevention Act form that is distributed to all new hires and current employees.

Because of the potential legal and regulatory implications of the job description, it is advisable to get legal or human resources expertise in the job description process.

Guidelines for Creating Job Descriptions

To get started:

  • Engage employees early in the process by interviewing incumbents in a position or creating a questionnaire to be completed by staff and approved by managers. Determine requirements for a position by interviewing and observing appropriate employees
  • Provide a broad description rather than listing every task—if you attempt to list every task, you are bound to leave something out or box yourself into a corner, where employees may question activities not specified in their job description
  • Create job descriptions per position, not per person
  • Identify sources for sample job descriptions. A few helpful websites include www.bestjobdescriptions.com and www.free-job-descriptions.com
  • Follow a consistent format by using a job description template
  • Base descriptions on current job requirements, not on what an incumbent is doing or the incumbent’s qualifications
  • Create a review and approval process to ensure buy-in from employees and management
  • Maintain job descriptions in a confidential, central location in hard copy and/or in your computer files and develop a process to keep job descriptions current by reviewing them on a periodic basis

What to include in job descriptions:

  • Job titles
  • Salary ranges (optional)
  • FLSA status–exempt or non-exempt
  • Statement of purpose or objective of the position
  • Description of reporting structure—the position the job reports to and the positions that report to it
  • Responsibilities and accountabilities
  • Education, including degrees, professional certifications, and licenses truly required to perform the job
  • Qualifications and specific skills required, including years of and type of experience; and management, decision making, and problem solving skills
  • Work location and conditions, physical requirements, equipment and tools used, travel required, and work schedule
  • A statement that the job description is not intended to represent a complete, comprehensive list of all duties and responsibilities and that there may be unplanned activities and other duties as assigned

Obtaining Employee Support & Buy-In

While job descriptions define a position, and not a particular person, the importance of gaining employee input is critical to success.  An employee’s involvement often makes the difference between the employee response ‘not my job’ and ‘I have it covered.’  Overall, participation in the development of job descriptions is known to foster understanding and communication, boost morale and create an atmosphere that motivates employees to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.

Job descriptions are powerful tools for organizations. With the commitment to developing concise job descriptions, management can ensure compliance, clarity of roles, and objective measures for hiring, retention, salary determinations, performance appraisals and performance management.  Employees can understand their roles and expectations more clearly, and both employees and employers can have a greater understanding of the contribution of each position to the overall success of an organization.  

Susan Kreeger and Jill Krumholz are the principals of RealHR Solutions LLC, experts in human resources programs and practices, and providers of HR consulting and outsourcing services to small to mid-size companies.

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