How to Write an Effective Job Description

Making the Job Description Clear Will Help to Hire the Best Employees

The Importance of Job Descriptions

Descriptions of job titles appear in a variety of forms in the workplace. Recruitment ads, compensation surveys and other benchmarking tools, as well as corporate or departmental development plans all use some method of describing a job.

The brief descriptions of highlighted positions that are seen in compensation surveys and other benchmarking tools are called job descriptors. These outline the major responsibilities associated with the position that can be applied universally. These are therefore sometimes standardized. While they may contain details like exemption status or job location, they are not required to be as specific as job descriptions.

The Human Resources Focus

Job descriptions are used for different purposes by the employee and the human resources department. A human resources office uses job descriptions for the following purposes:

  • As a definition of the functions and responsibilities of a job.
  • As a mechanism for recruitment.
  • For employee training and development (establishing and updating performance standards).
  • For succession planning or organizational development (for example, what additional tasks can be applied for the growth of the organization as a whole?).
  • In establishing legal defensibility (based on what the potential hire would be doing).
  • For assigning jobs.
  • To benchmark the company’s positions against those described by descriptors in salary surveys.

The Employee Focus

When looking for a job, a candidate can request a copy of the job description at the interview. The candidate can then do research to benchmark the position against its placement in the market, in order to participate in an informed negotiation process. The description should better inform the candidate about what kind of offer to accept from a potential employer. At the very least, a new employee should receive a copy of the job description within the first week on the job.

An employee’s job description should be reviewed at performance review time to make sure it accurately reflects the employee’s current job responsibilities. It should be used by both employee and manager as a tool for establishing development goals.

When reevaluating a job description, the employee and the manager can work on renewing it together, based on the work that has been and needs to be done. The revised description should then be reviewed by human resources professionals to assure that it is legally defensible.

The Elements of a Job Description

Before understanding what a job description entails, it’s important to understand fully the technical definition of a job. A job is a collection of tasks, duties, or responsibilities assigned to an individual. A job exists regardless of who performs the functions. Even when no one occupies the job, it still exists.

A job description simply describes the job. It should not have language or technical jargon that is difficult to understand. Every job description should include the following:

  • The job title.
  • The location of the job.
  • The job’s Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) status (exempt or nonexempt).
  • A position summary describing the purpose of the job.
  • Major responsibilities, describing the job as it currently exists and including the essential duties of the job. These are tasks for which the employee is evaluated. (Job descriptors outline only a small portion of the responsibilities for which the employee is evaluated.)A task is considered essential if the job exists in order to perform the function. There are a limited number of people who can perform the duties of a job, and failure to do so can adversely effect the organization.

    A good way to determine responsibilities is to estimate the number of hours spent in performing a function within a 40-hour week. The figures should be in percentages that make a sum of 100 percent.

  • Job qualifications, describing the minimum education, experience, and skills necessary to perform the job. The decision reached in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. established that an employer cannot require a higher qualification from an applicant than what the job requires in its description. An employer or an employee may argue that industry standards require that position to have a more advanced degree, but employers cannot legally refuse to hire someone because they fail to meet the elevated standard.
  • Working conditions, describing work-related hazards and environmental conditions that occur while performing the job. These might include, for example, the presence of loud noises (such as in a manufacturing facility), or the need to remain on one’s feet or even crawl (such as in carpentering). The Americans with Disabilities Act established that essential job functions become a legal standard, in order to fight discrimination against people of certain physical impairments.

Description Is as Description Does

The job description is not meant to include any judgments. It should not state what is expected in the future, and it should not discuss how well the job is being performed. It may be used as a tool for measuring and establishing further career development, but this should be addressed in the employee’s performance management plan.

Ultimately, when assessing a job description, the manager must ask: if the specific employee left the job, would anything in the description change? If not, then the description is as it should be.


Job Descriptions