I know you probably have more pressing issues on your mind like what you’re having for dinner tonight or how you’re going to manage to give your cat a bath this weekend, but this is important stuff for sure! Before we go over how to write position descriptions, we need to clarify the difference between a job description and a position description. Though they’re often used interchangeably, they’re not the same.
A job description is the nature of the work done. It includes the tasks and responsibilities expected of an employee in a specific position. Example: director responsibilities may include managing staff, producing quarterly reports, interacting with clients.
A position description is derived from a job with a more detailed, concrete set of specific tasks particular to the job. Examples: director of -HR, -marketing, -finance, etc. Depending on the kind of director in a department, there are tasks and skills specific to that department. A director of HR is responsible for managing employee issues and will be administering tasks such as labor relations/compliance, training, running payroll, benefits and recruiting while a director of finance will be in charge of maximizing returns on financial assets by establishing a company’s financial policies, procedures, reporting systems and oversee general accounting.
You may now be thinking, Yeah, well, I can see how position descriptions could benefit a company with more employees. Everyone here understands what they need to do. You’re right. With a smaller company you might have been able to get away with not writing a specific set of duties and skills required for that position because everyone basically wears many hats and jumps in wherever they’re needed.
But look down the road to when you need to fill a recent vacancy or when your company’s success means you need to hire more people. You don’t want to be caught scrambling to write something that you thought about for only two (okay three) hours. If it’s a vacancy, the tendency here is to write a description that you modeled around the prior employee, not necessarily what you need from that position.
Check out these things to keep in mind when you’re assembling the description:
This helps you gauge the market pricing of this position based on tasks and qualifications required and helps level the field against (sub)conscious biases like gender, race, and age.
Recruit for the right candidates
A clear position description and job description summarizing the position gives the purpose of the position and how the employee will fit in with the rest of the company. Ensuring that potential applicants understand the major responsibilities and selection criteria will help attract the right talent… unless of course you look forward to getting responses from applicants whose idea of job hunting is sending out resumes indiscriminately so it resembles the throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method.
Develop the position as the company grows/changes
The description helps in reevaluating the position as the company’s needs change. Reviewing the description during annual performance appraisal time allows to stay true to the position’s duties while at the same time takes into account possible necessary changes when other positions are created or changed. It also allows for managers to create professional development plans with employee input to encourage career growth and higher job satisfaction.
Specific tasks and goals accomplished with measurable outcomes as outlined in the prior appraisal help “keep it real,” as in real concrete. Employees will understand their tasks and tend to be focused and more productive than employees who have a vague description of what their jobs entail. It’s like playing by the same rules in Monopoly, and I think most of us know what it feels like playing with someone who has a different set of rules.
Maintain HR compliance per federal and state laws
This is a biggie. Creating accurate descriptions are essential! Without them, you can run into trouble with laws like the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and FSLA (Fair Labor Standards Act) just to name a couple. Should there be any issues that arise because your position description isn’t specific and thorough enough, you will wish you spent more than two (okay three) hours cranking it out.
So how to write one? If it’s a new position, write it up based on your company’s required tasks, similar positions you research from outside sources and input from other managers you work with–definitely an HR manager if you have one. Make sure you have other eyeballs to proofread it, too. Again, make sure at least a pair of those eyeballs belong to someone in HR. When writing a job/position description, you definitely want to give a professional impression, not some trumped-up last-minute description that’s riddled with errors.
Whatever you do, if you already have an employee in that position, it’s important to ask for the employee’s input to get info directly from that person and to get him/her onboard with hands-on involvement in crafting it. Don’t ambush the employee with a description out of the blue. You can approach it in a few ways:
- Talk to the employee and write one up based on the info received
- Ask him/her to write it and build on that
- Draft one yourself and ask the employee to review and tweak it as necessary
Below are the items you should include to make a great description.
Make sure it accurately reflects the role and responsibilities that fit the normal industry titles to be comparable. Avoid vague titles. “Mad Scientist” is catchy but confusing. Yes, I actually came across one of those. Make sure it reflects the responsibility level. The title “Director of First Impressions” instead of “Receptionist” is an extreme example of puffery and can be confusing.
This describes the purpose of the position and how the employee fits in with the rest of the company. A receptionist position might be summarized by “As the first contact point for visitors and calls coming in, the receptionist provides routing to the proper parties and departments while ensuring their needs are addressed promptly.”
Write up the specific tasks required with action-oriented verbs in present tense and specific details while at the same time keeping the descriptions simple. In other words, don’t write vague descriptions like “Provide good customer service.” What? Being cheerful and helpful is what I’d assume. What else? Learn to recognize clients’ voices? Not chew gum?
Everyone has their own idea of what good customer service is like, right? Writing it along the lines of “answer questions from customers calling in and forward to appropriate departments as necessary” more accurately defines a task.
Use bullet points with short statements to make it easier to read and digest. It also helps when it comes to annual performance evaluations because you’ve already got the tasks broken down into bite-sized chunks and can be discussed in that format.
List them with the minimum required qualifications for a new hire such as education, knowledge/expertise and experience with particular aspects of a position. Remember again, you’re not writing this based on an employee already in the position.
Ultimately, the goal here is to provide clarity for both employees and managers and keep everyone accountable based on specific descriptions. It might seem like a black hole that sucks your time up but think of it as an investment. Taking the time to develop good position descriptions increases productivity and accountability, employee retention and satisfaction plus it saves a lot more time and stress in the future so you have more time to grow your business, cook a decent meal or even bathe your cat… good luck with that, by the way.