Write effective job descriptions

By Doug Sayed, Applied HR Strategies

Creating successful job descriptions can be an important part of your role as a compensation and benefits specialist. Your organization's job descriptions should be concise, clear, and correct. They also should follow a consistent format.

The format and style for writing job descriptions might be different from any other type of writing that you do in your job. Writing job descriptions is not a complex process, but it requires following a basic format and including specific components.

What the terms mean

Before you begin writing job descriptions, it's helpful to understand the common terms used in job descriptions:

  • Job is a basic term that describes a set of duties and responsibilities performed by one person or multiple people.
  • Position is a job held by one person.
  • Responsibilities are major areas of accountability and are the primary functions of a job.
  • Duties are functions that the jobholder performs to meet the job's responsibilities. For example, a recruiter has the responsibility to recruit job candidates; the recruiter performs the duty of interviewing to find qualified job candidates.
  • Tasks are specific activities that jobholders perform to accomplish larger duties and responsibilities. For example, a jobholder might perform the task of inputting general ledger entries into the accounting system as part of the larger responsibility of maintaining the organization's financial accounting system.

Gather information

To write an effective job description, you should first gather relevant job information. A good starting point is existing job description and job analysis information from within your organization. Excellent external sources include thumbnail descriptions used in high-quality salary surveys, job postings in newspapers and periodicals, job database Web sites, and the U.S. Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

Be sure to adapt existing content to the specific functions and requirements of your organization and to the particular job that you are describing.

Job description basics

Job descriptions (JDs) are typically one to two pages in length. They include six key elements:

  • Job title
  • Job summary
  • Key responsibilities
  • Minimum job requirements
  • Physical requirements
  • Disclaimer

ShowGeneral tips for writing job descriptions

  • Use clear and concise language.
  • Use examples to clarify words that have multiple meanings.
  • Avoid unnecessary words such as "the," "an," and "a."
  • Avoid employee names; use job titles instead.
  • Don't use proprietary names (for example, Xerox and FedEx).
  • Don't refer to organization-specific terms or divisions that change frequently or are not understood outside the organization.
  • Avoid gender-based language such as "he" and "she."
  • Don't include the reporting relationships for nonexempt jobs in which jobholders might report to several different people.
  • Describe the job as it currently exists, not how it might be in the future.
  • Revise job descriptions after organization-wide or department reorganizations, not before the reorganizations.
  • Don't write job descriptions to incorporate hidden agendas such as on-the-job perks or bonus eligibility.

Job title

The first step in writing an effective JD is developing the title for the job. The job title should accurately reflect the type of work performed (for example, "clerk," "processor," or "analyst"). It should also indicate the level of work being performed (for example, "senior analyst", or "lead accountant").

Job titles in your organization should correspond to similar jobs in the industry. You should also ensure that the job titles are compatible with your organization's culture.

ShowTips for developing a job title

  • Don't exaggerate or inflate job titles. For example, use the job title "janitor" instead of the inflated "sanitary engineer."
  • Avoid potentially discriminating job titles that refer to age, gender, or race. For example, avoid using titles such as "girl Friday" and "salesman."
  • Avoid demeaning job titles such as "helper."
  • Consider whether the job title will be used in more than one department. For example, you might need to decide whether "accounting manager" or "manager" is a more appropriate job title.
  • Consider practical limitations on the job title, such as the length of a job title field (for example, "Human Resources Information System").

Job summary

A job summary describes the primary reason for and function of the job. It also provides an overview of the job and introduces the job responsibilities section.

The job summary should describe the job without detailed task descriptions. Its length should range from one sentence to a paragraph, depending on the complexity of the job.

ShowExample of a job summary

A job summary for a human resources director might be the following: Manages human resources function and day-to-day human resources management activities throughout organization, including employee recruiting, orientation, compensation, benefits, and related programs. Manages all HR functions, staff, and HR department budget.

Key responsibilities

The key responsibilities of a job are the essential functions that the jobholder performs. The key responsibilities section of the JD should include an overview of the job's essential functions that describes the basic aspects of the job and its primary responsibilities. JDs should include only higher-level responsibilities — minor task descriptions provide too much detail for the scope and purpose of JDs.

Begin each job responsibility with a present tense action verb, and describe the area of responsibility in action terms. Normally, there will be 7 to 10 responsibilities, depending on the job.

ShowExamples of key responsibilities

  • Develops marketing programs directed at increasing product sales and awareness.
  • Writes programming code to develop various features and functionality for commercial software products.
  • Designs and develops user interfaces for commercial software products.
  • Supervises technical support employees in providing technical support to organization clients.
  • Manages development of advertising and various marketing collateral materials.

ShowTips for writing key responsibilities

  • Use a telegraphic style (implied subject, verb, object, explanatory phrase) in which the implied subject is the jobholder and the explanatory phrase tells why, how, where, or how often the jobholder performs the task — for example, "Operates computer and peripheral equipment to obtain information for requesting departments."
  • Exclude responsibilities that do not account for at least 5% of the work unless they are critically important.
  • Arrange responsibilities in a logical order, such as the sequence in which they are performed, their relative importance, or the percentage of time each responsibility takes.
  • Incorporate relevant information such as level of independent judgment, physical and mental effort, contacts, work complexity, equipment, and supervisory responsibilities.
  • Include information regarding the frequency of the task and/or the percentage of time spent performing the task.
  • Use words, sometimes called "level cutters," to differentiate levels of the same job family. Typical level cutters relate to education and training, work experience, ingenuity, physical and mental effort, consequences of errors, and working conditions and potential hazards.
  • Identify functions that are essential, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Minimum job requirements

This section describes the minimum knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that are required to perform the job. Recruiters and human resources personnel use KSAs to guide recruiting efforts and determine whether candidates are minimally qualified.

To determine the minimum requirements of a job, ask yourself what the job candidate needs to possess in terms of:

  • Education — the type and minimum level, such as high school diploma and bachelor's degree.
  • Experience — the type and minimum level, such as three to five years of supervisory experience, five years of editing experience, and two years of experience with content management systems.
  • Special skills — such as languages spoken and computer software proficiencies.
  • Certifications and licenses — such as industry certifications and practitioners' licenses.

Remember to list only the minimum knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform the job, not the ideal attributes you look for in a candidate.

ShowExamples of job requirements

The job requirements for an accounting manager might include the following: Requires BS/BA degree in accounting or business administration, plus a minimum of four years' experience in either public accounting or professional-level corporate accounting (alternative to BS/BA in accounting/business administration requirement is MBA degree or CPA experience). Must have experience managing fixed assets accounts, depreciation schedules, account reconciliation, GAAP, and managerial accounting. Must be detail-oriented and have solid understanding of financial and managerial accounting concepts.

ShowTips for writing job requirements

  • Avoid arbitrary requirements that are difficult to validate.
  • Include only the minimally acceptable requirements. Do not inflate requirements.
  • Be specific and realistic about the necessary requirements.
  • Do not consider the particular education, experience, or skill level of current jobholders. Include only what the job requires.
  • Indicate why each requirement is necessary to perform the job. Relate the requirement to how and why the job is done (for example, "ability to read and comprehend instruction manuals to remedy minor equipment malfunctions").

Physical requirements

The physical requirements section describes the physical demands and environment of the job and lists the basic physical conditions needed to perform the job. This section should also list specific physical requirements such as lifting heavy objects and standing for long periods of time.

ShowExamples of physical requirements

The physical requirements for a freight delivery job might include the following: Requires ability to rapidly and constantly lift large and heavy packages and boxes and to repeatedly load and unload large boxes throughout shift. Must have ability to safely lift minimum of 50 lbs. without assistance and to push and pull up to 150 lbs. with appropriate equipment. Requires significant demands on these physical requirements throughout entire work shift and requires tasks to be performed in all types of weather conditions.

Disclaimer

All JDs should include a disclaimer that clearly states that the JD is only a summary of the typical functions of the job, not an exhaustive or comprehensive list of all possible job responsibilities, tasks, and duties. Disclaimers should also state that the responsibilities, tasks, and duties of the jobholder might differ from those outlined in the JD and that other duties, as assigned, might be part of the job. Some organizations, jobholders, and labor unions interpret the language of JDs literally. Therefore, it is important to include a disclaimer.

Review and approve job descriptions

Review your JD before distributing it. If the JD was written by an external source, it is advisable that a management-level employee or a few jobholders in the relevant department also review the JD.

JDs should be approved by human resources staff members and line or staff management. If a review process does not exist, create one. Periodic reviews of JDs are also necessary — review every two or three years for accuracy.

Make job descriptions work

Creating effective JDs can improve the human resources processes in your organization and give clarity to job candidates and job holders. JDs can also be helpful for performance reviews and compensation strategies. Focus your efforts on developing accurate JDs that include the six key components and are clear, concise, and consistent across your organization. By developing effective JDs, you can make your organization's compensation strategy successful.

About the author     Doug Sayed is founder and principal of Applied HR Strategies, Inc., a strategic human resources and compensation consulting firm based in Kirkland, Washington. Doug is a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) with over 20 years of human resources and compensation experience.

 
 
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