Writing and Using Job Descriptions

Job descriptions are not just for hiring any more.

Writing job descriptions is one of those tasks managers tend to put off or handle half-heartedly. The temptation is to continue using outdated descriptions or grab a generic template off the Internet. In the crush of day-to-day deadlines and emergencies, it can be hard to find the time for what might appear to be an exercise in paperwork. But carefully drafted job descriptions aren't just pieces of paper: They are the cornerstone to hiring effectively, communicating expectations to new employees, evaluating performance, terminating employees who can't meet your job requirements, and much more -- all while keeping you and your company out of legal trouble.

The process of creating a job description also offers a rare opportunity to examine your team and your company as a whole, and consider what human resources you will need to succeed. Where are you now? Where would you like to be in the future? And what kinds of skills and abilities will your people need to help get your company from here to there? A carefully drafted job description positions and prepares your group for the future.

Elements of a Job Description

A job description is simply a clear, concise depiction of a job's duties and requirements. Job descriptions can take many forms, but they typically have at least four parts:

  • A job summary: an overview of the position, with a brief description of the most important functions. Because this will be the first thing applicants read, it's a great place to sell the job to the candidates you're trying to attract (and to weed out those who won't be able to meet your expectations).
  • A list of job functions: a more detailed description of duties. While listing what people have to do to perform a job might seem pretty straightforward, it can be a legal minefield for managers who aren't aware of federal and state antidiscrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (For more on the ADA, see Reasonable Accommodations for People With Disabilities: The ADA and Avoid Disability Discrimination When Hiring New Employees.)
  • A requirements section: a list of the education, certifications, licenses, and experience necessary to do the job.
  • A section for other important information about the position, such as location, working hours, travel requirements, reporting relationships, and so on.

Benefits of Using Job Descriptions

A well-crafted job description provides you and the employees who report to you with a blueprint for success. It's the basic tool you use to hire, measure, and manage the performance of each employee, and of your team as a whole. Taking the time to create an accurate description will help you in almost every role you play as a manager:

  • Hiring. The job description is the basis of your search for a new hire. It will help you weed out applicants who don't have the necessary qualifications and find a new employee who has what it takes to succeed. (See our Hiring Employees page for more information.)
  • Interviews. You can build your set of interview questions around the job's actual requirements, as set out in the description. This will not only help you find a great hire, but also help you steer clear of topics that could lead to legal trouble. (For more information, see Conducting Job Interviews.)
  • Orientation. A new or recently promoted employee can use the job description to understand immediately what you and the company expect, and hit the ground running on the first day of work.
  • Performance management. The job description explains what constitutes success in the job. You can measure an employee's performance against those expectations. The description also gives you written proof that your employees knew what the company expected, if you later have to discipline or fire someone who couldn't measure up. (For more information, see How to Conduct Employee Evaluations.)
  • Compensation. A job description gives you (or your human resources department) a solid way to measure the value of a job and set the pay accordingly.

How to Get Started

The first step in writing a job description is to analyze and define the job. What are you expecting of the person in this position? What do others in your company expect of this position? What would success look like for the person who holds this job? And what big picture factors -- such as the current economy, what your competitors are doing, and your company's plans for the future -- might influence what you want this position to accomplish? These questions will help you start brainstorming about the requirements and functions of the job.

For detailed instructions on how to create and use job descriptions, including tips, exercises, and examples that will help you through each step of the process, from brainstorming to final product, see The Job Description Handbook, by Margie Mader-Clark (Nolo).

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