Author: Shari Dunn

Writing job descriptions is rarely anyone's favorite task … and it's more often than not a formidable prospect, whether it's an employee or a manager who's assigned the chore. Documenting job functions requires focused thought … not an easy process.

For employees, it is often difficult to capture in words what may not be well defined in the first place. The actual writing of descriptive material concerning duties, tasks, functions and responsibilities is often viewed as a frustrating exercise … an attempt to summarize what may be highly complex, rapidly changing roles over which the employee feels he or she has little control. Sometimes, the employee may not be certain just what his or her role should be and is reluctant to admit to this uncertainty for fear of being criticized. Another scenario may be that the employee has subtly altered the original job to better suit his or her interests and/or abilities and does not want this to be documented and potentially changed. So, what may appear to be a simple subject is actually fraught with peril from the employee's standpoint.

Managers, too, find job description writing a daunting assignment, particularly when they are tasked with writing descriptions for all of the jobs reporting to them because it may represent a large volume of work. Also, written job descriptions are sometimes viewed as having the potential of backfiring if the manager is questioned about the necessity and/or quality of the functions of his or her department. It is sometimes easier to maintain the status quo, acknowledge that the descriptions are out-of-date and get on with the day-to-day work of the department. No wonder so many managers and employees groan whenever job description writing and/or updating is mentioned!

Why don't organizations just give up and forego having current, accurate job descriptions? Probably because there are significant benefits associated with creating and maintaining job descriptions in spite of the organizational pain they may cause. Some of the primary benefits include:

1. Communication. A current, accurate job description is an excellent tool for managers to use as a guide for discussions with employees about performance excellence, deficiencies, needs for skills development, teamwork, organizational changes and/or career progress. It also assures that the managers and the employees reporting to them have a common understanding of the content of the job.

2. Salary administration. Job descriptions provide information necessary to accurately matching the organization's jobs to those defined in salary surveys, based on the actual duties and responsibilities, not on potentially misleading titles. This matching enables the organization to determine the labor market values of its jobs so that salary levels can be set at competitive levels.

3. Framework for determining performance criteria. If an organization periodically measures employees' performance results, the job description is the source of content for developing the goals and/or standards against which employees are measured.

4. Basis for recruiting. This is the most common and expedient use of job descriptions. Without a job description, it is difficult for candidates, search firms and/or other recruiting professionals to understand the nature of the job and its required qualifications.

5. Staffing planning. Whether an organization is contracting, expanding, or changing direction, it is essential to identify which jobs will be required and how many of each will need to be filled with either existing or new staff. Unless there is documentation on job content and level of responsibility, this becomes an impossible task.

6. Avoidance of misleading titles. Because titles vary significantly from one organization to another, a description of the duties and responsibilities associated with a particular title for a particular organization avoids confusion and misconceptions.

7. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Job descriptions should define the physical, mental and environmental requirements of each job. This is a useful way for the organization to assure that it is not illegally discriminating against employees or candidates based on physical or mental disabilities. In addition, job descriptions distinguish between "essential" and "non-essential" job functions so that employers can make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

8. Compliance with wage and hours laws. Job descriptions contain information that supports the classification of jobs in terms of exemption from payment of overtime.

9. Process improvement. Accurate descriptions of the organization's functional responsibilities related to each discrete job are a valuable means of highlighting areas in which processes can be made more efficient. They may also identify when gaps in work need to be filled or when duplications of work are occurring.

10. Identification of training and development needs. Clarifying the skills and competencies associated with each job enables managers to plan for and implement appropriate training for each employee consistent with the employees' career goals and the organization's needs.

Techniques for developing and maintaining accurate, current job descriptions vary from organization to organization. Here are some of the best practices that we have recommended and/or observed:

  • Employee participation. Use a questionnaire format to make it as easy as possible for employees to provide information about their own jobs. This makes them active participants in the process, saves managers' time and results in documentation of work activities of which the managers may not be aware.
  • One-on-one communication. Insist that the managers review and discuss the job questionnaire content prepared by their employees. When discrepancies in thinking are apparent, managers should be trained to resolve them in a way that is in the best interests of the organization, including communicating the intended job content to the employee concerned. Signatures of both the employee and the manager, along with dates, should appear on all job description questionnaires.
  • Multiple incumbent jobs. It may be possible, if all employees holding the same job agree to do so, to ask them to complete a job questionnaire as a group. If this is done, each employee should be given an opportunity to complete a separate questionnaire, particularly if he or she believes that his or her job is different from those of the other employees with the same title. If one questionnaire is completed by more than one individual, all of the employees should sign and date it.
  • Keep it simple. Develop a questionnaire that will meet the information needs of the organization. Request brevity, suggest the use of bullet points in lieu of sentences, and ask for summaries and categorized information. Avoid adjectives and adverbs, remembering that this is intended to be a statement of generic duties and responsibilities, not an assessment of how well the job is being performed.
  • Keep it current. Define job duties at a single point in time. Do not present a historical perspective. Do not speculate about potential future job changes.
  • Separate the person from the job. Make sure that employees understand that the description is intended to apply to anyone holding the job and that it isn't a personal statement about them. This is particularly true for the section describing the knowledge, skills and abilities required by the job.
  • Decide whether narrative descriptions are needed. Sometimes, the job questionnaire content is adequate for an organization's purposes. In other organizations, formal, narrative descriptions are needed. If the latter is the case, the questionnaire content can serve as input for developing the descriptions. Customizable job description software may be useful for this purpose.

Job description creation and maintenance are functions for which all employees can share responsibility. Developing effective tools, such as job questionnaires, makes the process easier. Ultimately, the benefits of having current, accurate descriptions far outweigh the intellectual, emotional and financial costs associated with the process.

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