Job Descriptions - Why you need them and how to write one

from Silk Helix
20 June 2020

What is a job description?

Traditionally a job description is quite simply a list of the tasks required of the person holding that job. I think we need to move away from this and job descriptions need to be much wider, potentially even moving away from the term job. Job defines a task whilst role is a wider term which looks at the part a person plays in the achievement of the whole.

I’ll continue to use job description in this guide as it is the most commonly used term but I’ll be looking at and talking about the role. We’ll look at what a job description should look like and how you get this document to work for you.

The job description should cover the tasks, activities, responsibilities and behaviours that the organisation requires of the job holder in order for the organisation to succeed. The tasks are often the easy bit - they can generally be defined and measured. But what about those interpersonal and creative behaviors that we need from people within organisations? Think about communication, collaboration and leadership - activities that are often vital.

With the exception of a few jobs that are done purely in isolation, most jobs require that people work in teams and collaborate with others in the organisation. Yet, these responsibilities are crucial. Taking management job descriptions, I see them all too often with one bullet point stating “managing the [insert team name] team”. It might have “ensuring the team operates effectively” or some other quality aspect but fundamentally a huge part of the role is squeezed into one bullet point. The reality is managing people is a whole set of tasks and behaviours which should be detailed clearly.

Why do we need one?

Job descriptions perform two key roles, the first and most commonly used is recruitment and the second (and where many of the problems come when they’re not right) is performance management.

In recruitment the job description provides information that helps both the hiring manager pinpoint the skills they need the new recruit to have whilst also providing information to those applying for the role. A job description should give potential employees a good idea of the role they will be doing and what will be expected of them. The document therefore needs to be clear and without company, or even industry, specific jargon.

Many organisations will produce a job description when it comes to recruiting. They recognise this need but once the person is in the role the job description gets left untouched. This then causes challenges for performance management. The job description should clearly show what is expected of the post holder. Whilst specific targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) may be held in a separate document, the job description should hold the overall picture of the role. This is where it is particularly important that the job description not only holds a list of tasks but also the behaviours required to fulfil the requirements of the role.

It’s not in my job description!

If you’ve ever managed people, this is possibly a line you have heard at some point and it may lead to a fear of job descriptions. It certainly results in a single line added to pretty much all job descriptions “and any other tasks required to fulfil your role”. If this has to be said then either the job description does not fully cover the role or there is mismatch of expectations.

Traditionally job descriptions outlined a strict set of tasks workers completed. Workers were not expected to have ideas or thoughts outside these strict tasks as this was the role of the manager. managers instructed their teams and made sure they completed the tasks as per the job description. Work has changed. We now expect everyone to contribute to the success of the business. We expect behaviours like collaborating with others, looking for improvements to ways of working, being creative and being a good team player.

If a manager and employee have different expectations of work this creates challenges around the job description. A job description which is written as a strict set of tasks may be interpreted by the employee as exactly that, so when their manager expects the individual to work beyond those tasks this is met with surprise. On the other hand a manager who believes an employee should stick to their set of tasks and leave the wider considerations to managers may find it difficult to manage an employee who wants to be thinking creatively and growing in their role. Both scenarios will lead to dissatisfied employees and managers.

Mismatched expectations and dissatisfaction can be overcome by ensuring the job description really is an accurate reflection of what the company expects of an employee in that role. Ensure the expected behaviours are included in the job description, some examples of what these might include:

  • Learning and development - taking responsibility for one’s own L&D and supporting the organisation by sharing learning.
  • Teamwork - including communication and collaboration. Having a positive impact on the team.
  • Problem solving and taking responsibility for finding solutions.
  • Positive attitude and constructive contributions.
  • Support and mentoring of others.
  • Consistently looking for improvements in ways of working - proactively making suggestions.
  • Customer focus.

These are just examples of aspects of the job that are often left out of the job description. They will not be right for every role or company. It’s crucial the job description matches what you expect of the person doing that job in your company. Job descriptions cannot be pulled off the shelf. There is no set standard for a particular job role. Job descriptions must be specific and reviewed regularly to be kept up to date.

Responsibilities

The job description must be clear on the responsibilities and authority of individuals, in particular those in management positions. What a manager says or does represents the organisation. An individual manager could land you in an employment tribunal. Even if you do avoid an employment tribunal, how a manager behaves and what they say will be the culture their team experiences.

The job description should make it very clear what the manager is responsible for and where the limits of their authority sits. As an example, if a manager is running a recruitment campaign then do they have the authority to verbally or in writing offer a job to a successful candidate? Or is their authority to decide who will be offered a job and then the actual job offer is made by a more senior manager or someone in HR?

Clarity of authority is one thing, ensuring individuals have the correct skills and have been trained in the activities required of them is also crucial. Continuing with the example above, if a manager does have the authority to make a job offer, the parameters of that authority must be set. The manager must be aware that even verbally offering a job is entering into an employment relationship and therefore they must be skilled in how they hold that conversation, ensuring they don’t agree to something the organisation did not intend them to.

What is the difference between a job description and an advert?

A job description is a crucial foundation to a job advert, once you know exactly what is expected of the person in the job role you can define the skills that person will need to perform the role. This can help you define which of these skills the person must come into the organisation with and which you can train.

A job advert however needs to go further. Think about how you attract customers to buy your products or services. A job advert should consider the same for employees. The job advert should clearly show what the job role looks like and the skills you’re expecting of the successful applicant. However, it must go one step further. When the applicant looks at the job role they are deciding if it is the role for them, but crucially they then need to consider whether this is the role for them in the organisation for them. Your organisation vision, mission and values need to come across, along with what you are offering the individual in return for them doing this job.

Marketing is outside the remit of this guide, but that is what we are talking about here. It is along the same lines as marketing your product or service. You must look at job adverts as marketing your company as a place to work. This helps if you’ve got a strong employer brand and worked generally on a positive image of your organisation being in the public domain, but equally this can be done at the point of advertising a particular role.

When people read a job advert they decide whether it is the job they are looking for or not. The advert needs to appeal to the people you want to attract. You want the best people to apply. You want them to feel excited and start thinking about themselves in this role, as this way you get to pick the best candidates. It’s really hard to get excited about a role and picture yourself in it with very little information. Equally important, those who don’t align with your values and culture should at this point self select themselves out, therefore not wasting your or their time.

How do we avoid discrimination?

There are some more obvious points that must be considered in writing job descriptions and job adverts and then some more subtle things around language that can help to reduce bias. There is increasing research around bias and the way language impacts groups differently.

A job description definitely should not include gender-specific language and pronouns - as an obvious example we would talk about a Police Officer not a Policeman.

Ensure that all the required qualifications really are “required”. Take a minimum period of experience for example - is it really necessary that the job holder has 5 years experience? Consider what you actually mean by 5 years experience. There is a considerable difference between someone who has been doing the same job in the same way for 5 years and someone who has been developing their skills and taking on new challenges during that time. It would be much better to define what they should have experience of and consider how skills can be transferable. No longer do people have linear careers so when moving job roles they’re often looking for a change or promotion rather than to move to another job identical to the last one. Therefore trying to seek someone who has done the exact same job previously is unlikely to yield the best candidates.

Avoid phrases like “world-class”, “best of the best” and “ninja”. Research shows this type of language tends to prevent many people, especially women, from applying for roles. This is not because these people are not the best, or that they are self-selecting out of a job they really couldn’t do. In particular for women this is because culture tends to present girls, and then women, as being more modest or having self-doubt. Consider how your target candidate would identify themselves. For example would someone who values and has a good attention to detail call themselves a perfectionist? Often not.

Consider how you present your culture and the impact of language on who might apply. “We work hard and play hard” is a phrase often seen in job adverts. On the face of it may not look that bad as of course an employer expects hard work and great that the employer also has social events. However, “work hard” will mean to many people unrealistic targets and pressures with an expectation to work late, whilst “play hard” can be interpreted as an expectation to stay for drinks or attend social events outside of work when your many employees would prefer to be at home with their family or taking part in their hobbies outside of work. This doesn’t make someone lazy and it doesn’t make them not good at their job - but they may not identify with “work hard”.

If you focus on attracting as many people as possible to your role you’ll be a long way towards avoiding discrimination. Research in this area is constantly developing. Job descriptions and adverts should be reflected upon regularly to look at ways to improve the range of candidates you appeal to. Your own internal data should also contribute to decision making. If your adverts result in a particular group being underrepresented in the numbers that apply then start asking why? What can we do to solve this?

Can we change a job description?

Absolutely! And more importantly you should. Don’t put the job description in a contract as it’s not a contractual matter. It is a matter of what the job looks like and what the organisation needs from that role. That will change over time. We live in a world where life is changing rapidly and that means work is changing rapidly.

There will be times when you look back over a job description and realise it no longer reflects the reality of the role. The job description should then be updated to reflect reality, although I recommend also questioning what has changed and crucially why. Have things changed for the better and in the right direction? This is a good time to reflect on whether what is being done and how is right for the organisation.

There are other situations where the job description is better known and “stuck to” and a proactive change needs to be made. As long as that change does not fundamentally change the contract of employment (including status) and is reasonable for the type of work that person does then changing it is a reasonable management instruction. I strongly recommend this is discussed with the individual involved and agreement is reached. It is much better for the employment relationship if consensus can be reached rather than orders given.

The job description should be reviewed and reflected on regularly. Yearly is a good review period. This helps to ensure the job holder is keeping up to date, that the job description reflects the reality and that there is some control and organisation over who is doing what.

How do we write one?

Assuming we’re starting with a blank piece of paper the first step is to understand the role and detail what is currently being done. Speak to the person doing the job, if there are lots of people doing the same job either speak to all or a selection if it’s a very large team. The immediate line manager should also be able to outline what their view of the role is and others who work closely with that role may also have useful insight. Once the information is gathered, it can be formed into something useful.

There is a possibility at this point that you realise everyone sees the job role differently and some consultation is required to work out what the job really should be about. Ultimately it should be focused on what the organisation needs to achieve its goals.

Once the job description is drafted, circulate it to the current job holder(s) to ensure it reflects what they believe the role is or discuss changes to the role if that is found to be necessary.

If it is a new role to the organisation then it’s more about understanding what is needed from the new role and drafting that into a job description. It’s likely this will then need reviewing at intervals during the post holders first year to ensure it still reflects what is required.

We have made job description templates available as a guide as to how you might structure a job description. We have included templates for two different styles of job description, both of which can be adapted to suit your specific needs:

This guide provides an overview for how job descriptions can be written and used. Whilst they are beneficial in every industry, how they are used will vary considerably. Book a call with Jenefer today for specific advice on how to use job descriptions.

While this guide covers the basics, every situation has its own complexities so you should always seek professional advice. Silk Helix can help so give us a call on 01245 910 500 to discuss, or we will call you:

Article last updated: 20 June 2020

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