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Job Descriptions

Job Descriptions describe the job rather than the individual who fills the job. They are the result of a job analysis within an organization and are essential to the selection and evaluation of employees.

Job descriptions are the basis for writing job advertisements, and they are valuable tools that may be used during every aspect of the employment process. Because they are so useful, writing and reviewing a job description should be the first step in the pre-recruitment stage of the employment process.

Input...Job Analysis
The job analysis is an in-depth study of a job and it provides information for the job description. A job analysis is prepared using information from the individual holding the job and the appropriate management staff. It should contain the following elements:
Purpose of the job (why it exists)
Job responsibilities and approximate percent of time spent on each duty
Knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics required to perform the job
Decision-making authority
Supervisory responsibility
Working conditions (mental and physical)
Equipment usage

If you are considering creating a new position (or eliminating a position), a job analysis should be completed to help answer the following questions.

  • What are all the tasks and duties?
  • How much time is needed to complete these tasks and duties?
  • Can these tasks be given to other existing employees?
  • If not, does this require 1 part-timer, 3 full-time...?
  • Does the company have income necessary to pay wages and benefits for this position?
  • Approximately how much additional income will be generated by this position?

Once the analysis has been completed, the next step is to develop a job description utilizing that information.

Output...Job Description
The job description is a written statement that defines the duties, relationships and results expected of anyone in the position.

Essential Functions
When writing job descriptions, it is imperative to distinguish between essential job functions and marginal job duties. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) brought essential functions into focus. Provisions of the act require employers to make reasonable accommodations to enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position. To determine if a function should be considered essential, ask the following questions:
Does the position exist to perform the function?
Are there a limited number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the function can be distributed?
Is the function highly specialized and the person in the position hired for special expertise or ability to perform that function?

Marginal functions are those that are not essential to the specific job, or functions that are shared by many different employees.

Dos and Don'ts
When writing job descriptions, consider the following guidelines:

Arrange duties and responsibilities in a logical, sequential order. Begin with the task requiring the greatest amount of time or carrying the greatest responsibility. State separate duties clearly and concisely so anyone can glance at the description and easily identify each duty.

Try to avoid generalizations or ambiguous words. Use specific language and be exact in your meaning. To illustrate: "handles mail" might be better expressed as "sorts mail" or "distributes mail."

Do not try to list every task. Use the phrase primary duties and responsibilities at the beginning of your job description and proceed from there. You should also close with a phrase such as "performs other related duties and assignments as required."

Include specific examples of duties whenever possible. Use non-technical language.

Indicate the frequency of occurrence of each duty. One popular way of doing this is to have a column next to the list of tasks with corresponding percentages that represent the estimated amount of time devoted to each primary duty.

List duties individually and concisely, rather than using narrative paragraph form. A job description is not an English composition.

Use the present tense; it reads more smoothly.

Be objective and accurate in describing the job. Be careful not to describe the present incumbent, yourself when you held that particular job, someone who may have just been fired for poor performance, or someone who was recently promoted for outstanding job performance. Describe the job as it should realistically be performed.

Identify all requisite training, talent, experience, education and personality traits. Separate requirements from preferred qualifications. Be certain that all requirements- are job related.

Stress what the incumbent does instead of attempting to explain a procedure that must be used. For example, use "records appointments" rather than "a record of appointments must be kept."

Use action words to begin each job duty. This means any word that describes a specific function, such as "directs" rather than "under the direction of..."
Review the job description on a regular basis and revise when necessary.

Putting It to Work
As mentioned earlier, job descriptions provide a basis for decisions in all aspects of the employment process. Here are some examples of how job descriptions can be used:

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO): To ensure that each job candidate and employee is treated fairly, the job description should be used to communicate consistent, clear information about job requirements. An accurate job description used as the basis for all human resource management steps is the best defense against accusations of unfairness or inequality.

Interviewing & Selection: When several job applicants have been recruited, the interviewer uses the job description to match their qualifications with those specified in the document. It also is a talking tool the interviewer uses to communicate job requirements. At decision time, the manager uses the job description to determine which job candidate most closely fits the job requirements.

Orientation and Training: When a new employee is hired, the supervisor/trainer uses the job description to train the new employee about precise tasks. The supervisor also spends time identifying how the job description links to performance evaluation (i.e. communicating with the employee the performance standards that are expected as he or she performs the tasks).

Management: Once past the orientation period, the supervisor uses the job description to monitor employee performance. Is he or she doing what is required? This monitoring results in positive reinforcement if the person is doing what is required, or correction/retraining if the person is not on target. Over time, the supervisor uses the job description to help the employee develop, by increasing performance standards or adding new job responsibilities.

If at any time during a performance period, an employee is not meeting performance requirements, the job description becomes a critical tool for communicating the gap between expectations and performance. It then is used as a road map when developing an improvement plan. This is a vital, legally required step in the performance problem process. It ensures the employee is aware of discrepancies and given a chance to improve them.

Compensation: Those determining how to compensate employees must know what the jobs are worth as a first step toward developing a salary schedule/pay structure. The job description provides the necessary data for this step. Also, when deciding if an employee is eligible for a merit raise and at what level, the findings between the job description and performance standards are vital data.

Termination: If plan goals are not met, poor performance (not up to the standards of the job description), serves as a legitimate basis for termination. Job descriptions can be used for termination in another way, too. If an organization is restructuring, its executives must consider how these changes impact their staffing plan. Analyzing job descriptions at this time helps identify how jobs might be combined or eliminated and whether new job descriptions must be developed.

Promotion: If an employee is promoted, he or she is a new employee for that particular job. Therefore, orientation, training and performance standard clarification must be conducted again, using the new job description as the communication tool.

Safety: The job description also can be used to identify unsafe working conditions and procedures. That is, as job information is gathered and analyzed and job descriptions developed, the analyst/writer will recognize if hazards exist. Then, unsafe condition/procedures can be changed or discontinued.

Portions excerpted from "Managing Human Resources in Small and Mid-Sized Companies." American Management Association, 1995.

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