How to Construct a Job Description

How to Construct a Job Description

The organizations that don’t have job descriptions are often not as efficient, productive or successful as they could be.  Mind you, writing job descriptions is a lot of work and it has been my experience that as soon as you print the job description, it is likely to be outdated. It is best to have a 20’ perspective rather than a 20,000’ perspective when writing a job description.


We want to be successful in our work. We enjoy clear direction. We want to be paid fairly. We do better when the clear feedback helps us know just what we are doing well or what needs to be done differently. And if the organization is spending money on training and development, we will work harder when we know what change the training or development is supposed to support.


Job descriptions are all about providing clear direction but no matter how well I understand a job, it is difficult to find the written words so that my experience of work will be clearly understood by any other person. Job descriptions are a lot like resumes. They are better than nothing but they really don’t describe the real thing. All we can do is our best. When writing job descriptions, I like to involve the incumbent but it is the supervisor and senior management who always have the say in the final document.


There are lots of different formats for, and uses of, the job description. We write job descriptions and then take some of the information from the job description to write the job posting. We look at job descriptions differently and perhaps collect additional information to the mix when we are doing job evaluation. Job evaluation provides the basis for fair pay – between positions within an organization and between organizations. We refer to the job description when we are evaluating performance and when we are managing performance. We focus on one area or another in the job description to identify the goals and objectives for the training or development plan or the formal or informal feedback.


We want every employee to have all of the information needed for success. There is, of course, a position title. There is a very high level summary of the position, that is, a brief description of why the position exists. The summary also usually includes something of the reporting structure – which position does this position report to and which positions, or the number of positions that report to this position. The summary can also indicate something of the hours of work particularly if it is shift work.


Following that is a brief description of the various responsibilities. These responsibilities may be grouped by topic or subject to make it an easier read and to give an understanding of the scope of the position. In larger organizations there is less likely to be variety in the scope of the position. In a smaller organization there is likely to be breadth.


The specific responsibilities can be written in a variety of ways. It is important to have a consistent format from one job description to another so that you can find what you are looking for when you have to move from one to the other or when you have to compare them.


The responsibilities can be described in a paragraph or bullet form. They can be an active tense or a passive tense, just as long as it is consistently one or the other. They always include “Perform other related duties as assigned”. The responsibilities are not written for someone who has little or no understanding of how to do the job but rather for someone who has some level of expertise in the role. Separate task lists can be developed for jobs where there is a lot of turnover as a training aid. Task lists include lots of details that enable the incumbent to follow the explicit directions to do the job. Task lists are large documents.


The next section is the technical competencies. This could be called qualifications or job requirements or many other titles. They briefly describe the depth and breadth of the knowledge, skills or abilities that are required for success. Sometimes they include years of experience or levels of proficiency. Quite often they are pieces of paper (degrees, diplomas, certificates) that are a short cut way of communicating about your knowledge, skills and/or abilities.


Think about your drivers’ license. It is a piece of paper (plastic?) that implies that you have the skills or know how to drive a motor vehicle in Nova Scotia. When we are recruiting, we may want to test this knowledge, skills and/or abilities or we may trust what that piece of paper says. This section may speak to specific physical abilities such as an ability to lift and carry 60 kg without assistance or to stand for long periods of time and walk up and down stairs. We want to include as much about the frequently used technical competencies as we can. That means that if you need to stand on your feet for long periods of time on a daily basis it should be included. If, on the other hand, you are only standing on your feet for long periods of time at the fund raising events that are held twice a year, it would not be included.


The knowledge required for success may be knowledge gained from a formal educational program. When someone has a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, for example, that implies they have a certain body of knowledge. The depth of knowledge gained while undertaking a Bachelor’s degree is greater than that gained while taking a one year diploma course in Office Administration. All knowledge, skills and abilities are listed under Technical Competencies.


In the last section includes the behavioural competencies or the typical behaviours required for success. The list under responsibilities describes what you are to be doing and the behavioural competencies tell you how you do your work. Think of your favourite math teacher and your least favourite math teacher. They both taught you math. They both evaluated your skills and knowledge. What was different? Why was one your favourite and the other your least favourite? Probably how they taught and how they evaluated, not the math – the what – they taught.


The behavioural competencies play a critical role in the selection process. This is largely what my interview questions will be based on, given it is easier to hire for behaviours and train for skills. This is an important part of what your performance will be evaluated on as well. This can impact your training and development plan. It is critical that you clearly understand what is meant by each of the behavioural competencies.


Other topics you will find in job descriptions include: the physical conditions of the job, the physical abilities and requirements of the job, the mental pressures, the sensory attention, the dimensions of the job, quantifying the most frequent inputs or outcomes, a description of the typical decisions made by the incumbent and a description of the decisions that are passed up to the supervisor, the internal and external contact, the number of employee this position supervises, and so on.


The most challenging thing about job descriptions is keeping them current. The higher the perspective when documenting the job, generally the longer period of time the document will be accurate. Again, the challenge with a written job description is that is seems that as soon as you finish the written document, the actual work changes. Regardless, the value of having the job description is still there.


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