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Do We Really Need Job Descriptions?

Post: Sep. 19, 2018

By Rebecca Mazin, Recruit Right, Council of Industry Certificate in Manufacturing leadership Instructor

On a recent Friday afternoon, I sat down to write a job description. Then I took a nap.

To create a job description, I don’t use a formula and simply change a few words, it’s not a rote task. Good job descriptions include required education, experience, competencies, essential functions and reporting relationships. I know the process takes one to one and a half hours. It’s just a boring task. So, I am likely to procrastinate and wait for a slice of unscheduled time.

The employer reviewed this job description and made only a few suggestions. Revising the document brought a familiar question; do we really need job descriptions? In this situation the job description was written to clarify roles, responsibilities and reporting structure. It will be presented to the incumbent in the job to ensure understanding, making certain everyone is on the same page. So, yes, I think it’s a good idea.

Job Descriptions as Living Documents

Many job descriptions reside on shelves in binders or inhabit personnel files as hard copy or in digital folders. They’re consulted so infrequently they could be hibernating. Job descriptions will be more effective if they are dusted off and checked for accuracy and revised regularly.

For employers who conduct a formal performance rating process the job description can be used as a baseline for responsibilities. Promotions or job postings are also perfect times for a job description check. Systems, structures and responsibilities change, particularly items that related to ever changing technology.

Job descriptions are important parts of any discussion about accommodations for a disability. They form the basis for the interactive conversation that identifies essential tasks and potential modifications.

New hires will appreciate a job description. It should be one they understand and has been checked to make certain it is current. Telling a team member, “Don’t worry about this section, we haven’t done that in years,” is not an engaging onboarding statement.

Other Duties As Assigned

No employer wants to get boxed in by a job description that’s treated as a complete list of all responsibilities. To avoid, or respond to, “it’s not my job,” descriptions include a statement that allows for changes, new assignments, something like, “other duties as assigned.” Good idea but not something that should be stressed as the focus of the job description.

An acknowledgment of receipt of the job description, that often includes language about “other duties” is part of many employer’s documents. If these are used, they too should be user friendly. Don’t hand the job description to the employee with a pen and say, “sign here, I’ll give you a copy.” Think about whether asking for the signed acknowledgment is a welcoming statement and if it is your practice frame it as a benefit for everyone at your workplace.

Flip the Format

There is no one format for a job description. Think outside the usual constraint and use a format that works for your organization. I have written what I called, “Job Expectations.”

These include basic headings and simple language such as:

  • Your job title
  • Who you report to
  • Your work hours
  • Your basic responsibilities
  • Here’s who you interact with
  • Some things you will need to learn

User friendly content can also note that duties can change.

Get Employee Input

Staring at a blank document makes a job description even harder to write. When there are incumbents in a position I use a questionnaire to help identify goals, education/experience required, knowledge and skills needed and major and minor duties. It’s important to remember that a good job description is not simply a reflection of what the incumbent is doing in the role. They may have a non-traditional background and be working to stretch into new tasks.

Having a staff member write their own job description can be a tool for engagement if they too don’t start with a blank page. Provide a format or list of content required to avoid a simple list of daily routines. This exercise could be combined with goal setting to set the stage for growth and contributions.

Job Descriptions as Postings are Boring

Job descriptions are not effective job postings. Particularly in a job seekers market 2 – 3 pages of dry language does not inspire a candidate. We seem to forget that a job posting is an advertisement. Just because online sites give plenty of room for job posting content doesn’t mean it should all be used. When a job seeker is using their phone for a search they may only catch the first 4 lines. Will they really read past a 15+ line description of the company to get to details about the job?

When we make it hard for candidates we shouldn’t be surprised to receive so many resumes from individuals with unrelated backgrounds. So keep a job posting as direct and brief as possible with a compelling 2-3 sentence description of the company.

A Resume is Not a Job Description

On the other side of the job search, too many candidates quote, or cut and paste, a job description to write a resume. Employers can spot these resumes right away. They demonstrate minimal preparation and thought. And let’s remember that resumes are not thrilling documents either, no reason to add content that is truly snooze worthy.

Toss the Poorly Written Job Descriptions

I frequently see organizations copy and use documents from other employers. They cut and past a logo and presto: a performance evaluation, job description, form or even employee handbook.

You are better off having nothing than simply bringing job descriptions from other employers, changing a logo, and putting it in place. The concept doesn’t work on so many levels. There’s the obvious, it’s not accurate and the roll out was so poor that no one understands the document. It becomes embarrassing when employees spot content that still includes the name of the employer that was the document source. Even worse when it includes names of senior managers and/or owners.

As I revise this document I can conclude that we don’t need second-rate job descriptions. When they’re sloppy, poorly written and don’t reflect the jobs, toss them.  Job descriptions are valuable when they’re written well and used effectively.