Job Descriptions Done Right

Job descriptions, or whatever you may call them, are frequently an afterthought for most organizations.  They are often created on an as needed basis.  Typically, job descriptions are developed to assist in recruiting and employee reviews.  I have even seen employees write their own job descriptions in an effort to clarify their role in the organization.  In my consulting practice, job descriptions are typically created or revised as part of a formal management system implementation project (e.g.  ISO 9001, ISO 14001, etc.).  I consider this best practice.  However, most of my clients are not sure where to start or are not completely comfortable with the job descriptions they already have.

In the very least, job descriptions must include a general description of the job functions, reporting structure, and the minimum required education, training, experience, and skills.  The term “minimum” is important here.  There is nothing wrong with wishing for the perfect candidate, as long as you are pragmatic about the minimal qualifications needed for the position.  Does your Executive Assistant really need a MBA to be effective?

Unfortunately, job descriptions rarely clearly describe what your expectations for the employee are, how you intend to measure performance, and how job performance is linked to corporate goals and objectives.  Ideally, the job description should also provide some context of the position and the interaction with other job functions.  As with any document, it is nice if all this can be addressed on one page.

When you begin thinking about a job description, start by asking the following questions:

a) What is the purpose of the job?  Why does it exist?
b) What are the required skills and competencies needed for the job?
c) How will you evaluate/gauge b)?
d) What qualifications and/or credentials are essential (education, training, experience)?
e) What personal attributes are important for the job?
f) What job functions are absolutely mandatory (primary)?
g) What are the objectives and performance measures for f)?
h) How does g) link to group and/or organizational goals and objectives?
i) What job functions are supplemental (secondary)?
j) What are the relationships and interfaces with other functions?

When you consider these questions, it becomes apparent that a job description goes beyond the listing of tasks and duties.  It requires the formal rationalization of exactly why the job is needed, what is specifically expected of the employee, and against what criteria he or she will be periodically evaluated.  This may seem onerous, but it is an investment in ensuring that an organization’s workforce is accurately aligned with expected outcomes.  When done well, it can yield great dividends in employee productivity, empowerment, motivation, retention, and development.

When creating key performance measures, it is important to make them practical and achievable.  Including stretch goals is useful, but they must be purposeful, constructive, and motivational.  If an employee cannot envision achieving a stretch goal, he or she may get demoralized and not even try.  Also ensure that measures can be easily measurable by both the employee and the manager, using the same method.  Finally, limit the number of key performance measures to a small but meaningful number (<5).

Since no function is isolated within an organization, it is vital that employees understand their contribution to the achievement of the organization’s goals.  Consequently, the link between an individual’s job and corporate objectives should be easily understandable.  A simple reference to the relevant section of the strategic or business plan may be adequate (provided this document exists and is freely available).

Finally, the job description should describe how the job works with other functions, including reporting lines, as well as what other tasks the employee might be expected to do such as “acting” positions, or environmental, health and safety responsibilities.

Clear and concise job descriptions can help management in HR planning, staff recognition and incentive programs, and regular reviews.  They can help supervisors and individuals to understand their roles and the organization’s expectations; and they provide direction in identifying training needs.  Well written job descriptions provide a solid foundation to the organizational structure.  Just do not forget that they may need occasional refreshing to reflect changing business needs.

Kirill Liberman, President

13 Responses to “Job Descriptions Done Right”

  1. Jonna Anderson says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your article. Problem I see generally is companies don’t have the basic infrastructure to create such descriptions. They need task-oriented fire fighters, not the ideal educated quality engineers to help them meet organizational goals that aren’t even well-defined, deployed or measured. Job descriptions become a marketing exercise for the company to attract the best candidates and then those candidates quickly realize the job is nothing like was described because they are stuck doing tactical day-to-day blocking and tackling instead of the strategic goal contributing work the job description promised which is unfortunate for those high performing people that decide to move on and then get labeled a job-hopper.

  2. Kirill says:

    Thanks for the great comment, Jonna.

    Missing the infrastucture and fire-fighting is spot on. This is what I meant when I said that I make clients develop workinstructions of part of the management systems inpmenetation, like ISO 9001. While ISO 9001 certification does not require value-added job descriptions, a good business system like the Lean QMS or Lean BOS does.

    I hope you will comeback to the blog and share more of your insights.


  3. William K. Graham says:

    A thought for you to consider. Several HSE regulations require job descriptions address responsibilities for compliance including H&S [29 CFR 1910.1200] and RCRA training [40 CFR 265.16(d)], waste manifest signing, authorized person for certifying regulatory reports, confined space entry, etc. Rather than go into each of these in detail, it may be helpful in your article to raise the issue and suggest there be an applicability evaluation of compliance regulations with specific requirements to be addressed in the written job description.


  4. Kirill says:

    Great point, Bill. Thanks you. I only eluded to this subject in the next to the last paragraph. Your comment does the subject much more justice. I hope every one takes note.

    Please come back to the blog and give us all more advice.


  5. Aileen says:

    I agree completely with your article. I agree with your comment that job descrptions need to be refreshed and updated with changing business needs because I have seen in many instances that once they are written many employers never change or refresh them but the job responsibilities change with the changing markets/businesses. They should not only be changed when you are recruiting to fill that position but also mid year when a job changes. Often times I hear employees saw that their job description does not reflect what they actually do which leads to lower morale and not feeling valued for their work. I look forward to reading more of your articles

  6. Kirill says:

    Hello Aileen and welcom to the blog.

    Thank for sharing your thoughts and experience. You did a particularly good job durring your ISO 9001 certification process. Perhaps you will consider sharing an example of a good job description that you developed. Let me know and I will be glad to attach it to this article.

    I hope you will comeback often. Your comemnts and expereince will be a great benefit to all the readers.


  7. Job descriptions says:

    I think no one can argue against this article, truly most perfect! @bose

  8. Jonathan A. Daniels says:

    Really enjoyed this article post.Much thanks again. Cool.

  9. Kirill says:

    Thank you, Jonathan, and welcom to the blog. I am glad you found this article helpful. Please come back soon.


  10. Suellen Plugge says:

    Must job descriptions be signed and dated by both the employee and the manager and kept on file for ISO Audits?

  11. Kirill Liberman says:

    Hello Suellen,

    Job description do not need to be singed by anyone, unless you want to. However, Job Description should be under document control (i.e. revision, approval, distribution, etc.) and subject to an ISO audit.

    Let me know if you have any other questions.

    Kirill Liberman

  12. Sherwin says:

    Why do you think Job Description should be under document control (i.e. revision, approval, distribution, etc.) and subject to an ISO audit.?

    What are the reasons?

  13. Kirill Liberman says:

    Hello Sherwin.

    Thank you taking the time to read my article and posting your questions.

    For the record, Job Descriptions are not specifically required by ISO and they don’t have to be under document control. Furthermore, if a company has job descriptions that are not much more than job posting (this is what we commonly see), then there is no good reason to keep them under document control and to audit them.

    On the other hand, if the job descriptions include the elements that I discuss in my article, then they likely serve as a key element of the business operating system and support the culture of the company. In this case, if the company chooses to change its organizational objectives and/or structure, it should evaluate how and where these changes will impact individual responsibilities and authorities, key skills and competencies, performance measures, etc. of various position. In my example, such items would be discussed in job description. Consequently, it would be helpful to engage appropriate managers/supervisors (aka: owners, reviewers, approvers, subject matter experts) to ensure that job descriptions are appropriately updated and changes appropriately communicated.

    I hope this makes sense and gives you the reasoning you were looking for. If you would like to discuss this further, don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly. I would welcome the conversation.


    Kirill Liberman

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