Demystifying Job Descriptions

Although creating and maintaining job descriptions are sizable undertakings, most employers recognize the end result is indispensable in helping staff understand their job responsibilities. After all, without a job description, how can an employee properly commit to, or be held accountable for, a position?

But the usefulness of job descriptions doesn't end there. In fact, they are such important tools that management pundits call them "essential building blocks," not just for human resources departments but the effective functioning of the entire organization. Their huge contributions to improving a business include:

  • Show how an employee's work contributes to the overall goals of the business
  • Aid communication and feedback between a job incumbent and his or her supervisor
  • Reduce subjective interpretation of job requirements
  • Clarify training, motivation, and coaching needs
  • Expedite recruitment, hiring, promoting, development of salary scales, performance appraisals, discipline, conflict resolution, succession planning and firing (by giving the employer an objective basis for measurement and decisions)
  • Provide systematic tools to survey a company's organizational structure and work flow and ensure all necessary activities are covered by one job or another
  • Help a company decipher its outsourcing requirements

Writing job descriptions

A typical job description takes one to three pages and provides a careful analysis of the important facts about a job. Its essential ingredients are:

  • Job Title
  • Department - E.g.: "Sales"
  • Reporting Structure - Identifies the supervisory position to whom the employee reports and the subordinates who will report to him or her directly. Relevant indirect reporting structures are sometimes also included.
  • Position Summary - Includes why the position exists, its main purpose, objective, function, responsibilities, and scope.
  • Minimum Education &/or Specific Work Experience Required - E.g.: "Postsecondary diploma or combination of education, training, and experience" or "Minimum 5 years' experience managing estimators, customer service representatives, and production co-ordinators in a sheetfed printing environment."
  • Minimum Key Skills, Knowledge, and Competencies - PrintLink's Managing Director Myrna Penny calls these "the skills they need to walk in the door with." E.g.: "Ability to lead teams with a broad range of skills and backgrounds" or "Print sales experience is desirable but not required."
  • Essential Job Functions - An itemized list of the principal tasks that are critical to job success. Often these are represented by a key verb followed by a measurable or observable end result and/or the main way(s) it is accomplished. E.g.: "Identify qualified candidates for job openings by screening applicants."

As a benchmark, some HR consultants recommend including each duty comprising at least 5% of the incumbent's time. Still others say that limiting the list to around 8 to 12 tasks is ideal, although smaller organizations whose staff cover a broader range of duties may list as many as 15. Most agree that job descriptions with more are too long and such detail belongs in a standard operating procedures manual.

To avoid situations where employees only do what is defined on the job description, it is customary to add an extra line that reads: "Perform other tasks or duties as assigned."

  • Key Results / Deliverables - Indicates in general terms how the employee's success will be measured. E.g.: "Manage staff, pre-press tools, and resources to optimize the function's impact to press and finishing, delivered on time and within budget to ultimately meet or exceed customer expectations."
  • Contacts - Itemizes people with whom the incumbent will have most on-the-job contact, both internal and external and whether via face-to-face or phone communication.
  • Equipment / Machinery Utilized - Lists routinely used machinery, tools, and software.
  • Working Conditions - Details such factors as noise, exposure to weather or hazardous conditions, and any physical demands such as heavy lifting. Should also include work hours or such specialized requirements as handling confidential data.

Where to find help

For employers facing the daunting task of writing job descriptions, help is available. They can get connected to resources through membership-based industry associations like PIA/GATF, says Myrna. Additionally she advises, "One of the most effective ways to produce job descriptions is to get incumbents to write down what they do. They're the ones who know best. At PrintLink we see informative lists of essential job functions all the time in candidates' resumes. The same type of information can be easily compiled in the workplace via questionnaire and transposed onto a job-description form."

"Remember that job descriptions are works in progress and should never be considered final," says Myrna. "Due to everything from personal growth to organizational change to the evolution of new technologies, they should be reviewed at least once a year by both employee and supervisor."