Job Descriptions: A Smart Move — But Only If Done Correctly

The benefits of having a good system of employee job descriptions in place (and the risks when you do not) are worth the effort. To name a few: 

  • Legal protection. In the absence of a reasonably detailed job description, employers can be sitting ducks if an employment relationship goes awry and a disgruntled or terminated employee claims mistreatment or some form of discrimination.
  • Getting the job done. Employees (especially new ones) who aren’t entirely sure of what they are supposed to be doing  — and are left to feel their way through to meeting your expectations — are likely to fall short.
  • Good employee morale. Employees appreciate working for companies that show their regard for them by mapping out job expectations and the pathway to success.
  • A rational compensation structure. With job descriptions, employers have a strong basis for establishing appropriate and market-based pay for individual positions.

Employers that have never used job descriptions don’t need to start from scratch to create them. Several companies, including some payroll service vendors, have human resource divisions that sell boilerplate job descriptions, notes Mary Dunlap, an independent HR consultant. However, those prefabricated descriptions may be inadequate without customization. She believes that  to be effective, job descriptions should do more than just address the nuts and bolts requirements of the position.

Include an Overall Job Vision

Job descriptions should include “an overall vision for the job,”  according to Dunlap. This would include a brief answer to the question, “where is the business going?” to help prospective or existing employees grasp the big picture and where their jobs fits into it.

The core of a job description is the rundown of “essential functions” or duties. This is the most straightforward part of the document — but this list must be prepared thoughtfully (see caveats below). An essential function need not be performed frequently or be time consuming. Rather, it can be one that is important, and cannot be done by other employees on a regular basis.

Job descriptions should also offer broad guidance on the manner in which the job should be carried out, covering such matters as punctuality, quality level, sensitivity to confidentiality requirements, courtesy towards customers, and so on.

Clarity on Physical Requirements

Physical job requirements also must be spelled out — even for jobs that don’t require actual heavy lifting. Experts in the field of creating job descriptions may advise clients to enumerate other physical job elements including exposure to noise, high and low temperatures, working in confined spaces and even visiting customers at their locations.

Job descriptions should make it clear that they do not limit what may be asked of an employee, and that new duties may be assigned as circumstances warrant without an immediate change to the job description.

Prudence dictates sharing the draft of a new job description with an employment attorney or human resource consultant to avoid inadvertently creating the kind of legal hazards you sought to eliminate by writing it in the first place. Certain language could be construed as discriminatory. Also, descriptions should be given a reality check to assure they don’t describe a job that would require superhuman powers to perform adequately.

Staying Current

Finally, job descriptions, especially in small and growing organizations, need to be reviewed regularly, perhaps annually. This is needed to ensure that they are both accurate in terms of what the employee is actually doing, and appropriate in light of possible changes in the company’s needs or priorities.

Employees bear some responsibility for keeping track of what they are doing and calling attention to any significant and regular deviations from their job description.

Dunlap recommends that business owners and top management, during their annual planning processes, take time to integrate any new company goals and initiatives into employee job descriptions to ensure that they are communicated concretely to the employees who are expected to play a role in making them a reality.