How to Write Effective and Legal Job
What Is a Job
A job description is a written statement
that describes the main objective of a job, its essential and nonessential
functions, the qualifications, and other information.
A job description may describe duties,
skills, effort, and responsibilities, environmental and working conditions, and
the education and experience required. It also may include information on tools
and equipment used and relationships with other jobs.
Thirty people may hold the same job and,
therefore, use the same job description. It is important to remember that a job
description describes the job, not the person or persons who hold that job.
There are two basic types of job
descriptions: "generic" or general and "specific" or individual. In addition,
position descriptions often are written for individual, high-level managerial
Specific or Generic?
The specific job description provides
information on all the essential duties and responsibilities assigned to one or
more individuals performing the job. It is usually quite detailed and
comprehensive and provides a sound basis for job evaluation, training,
orientation, and human resources/personnel organizational planning. This type
of description demands a thorough job analysis, considerable care and expertise
in preparation, and an effort to keep it useful and up to date. It is the
soundest type of job description to use, and usually the most expensive to
prepare. There is also a tendency to exclude incidental responsibilities and
duties, and disagreements can arise between supervisors and employees when
relatively minor job duties change.
Generic job descriptions, on the other
hand, are written in broadly stated, general terms without identifying specific
functions, tasks, and responsibilities. A generic description is applicable to
a group of similar or near-similar jobs, and therefore the per-job cost of
preparation is lower. However, since the description must be written broadly
enough to allow for some variations in product, equipment and materials used,
or procedures, it may include some functions performed in one or more of the
jobs but not all of them.
Today, because of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA), use of the generic job description is not recommended.
While the ADA doesn't require job descriptions, it does require that applicants
and employees be able to perform the "essential functions" of the job, with or
without reasonable accommodation. However, the EEOC has said that one of the
things it will look at when determining essential functions is job descriptions
written before an employer advertises to fill an opening. Therefore, most
companies-whether they are rewriting old descriptions or developing them for
the first time-want them to reflect essential functions, and a generic
description is not the best way to do that. In addition to this legal
consideration, managers have found problems with generic job descriptions when
they are not properly written or the supervisor chooses to ignore the
limitations built into the description.
No job description should be viewed as a
perfect reflection of the job. The object of a good job description is to
differentiate the job (or group of jobs) from other jobs and to set outer
The information for much of the job
description often is obtained a job analysis. The purpose is to identify the
job, define it within established parameters, and describe its scope and
content. The job analysis should be accurate, concise, and complete.
Job descriptions, and the process used to
develop them, should conform to all legal requirements. One key law to keep in
mind is the ADA, which took effect for many employers in July 1992. Again,
while this law does not specifically require the use of job descriptions, it
has great ramifications on their use. Other laws that affect job descriptions
are discussed in detail in the section, The Job Description in the
Why Are Job Descriptions
Job descriptions are important for a
number of reasons:
- They clarify who is responsible for
what within the company. They also help define relationships between
individuals, between departments, etc. When used to advantage, they can help to
settle grievances, minimize conflicts, and improve communications.
- Job descriptions help the jobholder
understand the responsibilities of the position. This not only enables the
employee to assess the relative importance of everything he or she is
accountable for, but also provides a sense of where the job fits into the
company as a whole.
- Job descriptions are helpful to
applicants, employees, supervisors, and human resources professionals at every
stage in the employment relationship, from recruitment to retirement. They
provide information about the knowledge, raining, education, and skills needed
for each job. They prevent misunderstandings by telling employees what they
need to know about their jobs. Best of all, they provide this information in a
completely objective and impersonal way.
- Job descriptions help management
analyze and improve the company's structure. They reveal whether all company
responsibilities are adequately covered and where these responsibilities should
be reallocated to achieve a better balance.
- Accurate job descriptions provide a
basis for job evaluation, wage and salary surveys, and an equitable wage and
Finally, they provide a basis from which
to determine whether a disabled applicant is otherwise qualified for the job
and, if so, what accommodation should be made to let the applicant perform the
essential functions of the position.
So Many Jobs, So Little Time: The
Despite these and other benefits, job
descriptions traditionally have suffered a poor reputation among managers and
human resources staffers. In fact, job descriptions often end up being ignored.
"Job descriptions? Sure, we have them. They're in the bottom drawer of that
file cabinet with the big stack of books in front of it.
Why? There are a number of reasons. It
takes commitment to maintain a job description program. It means that someone
must be vested with that responsibility, i.e., it's got to be part of someone's
job description. In addition, supervisors and managers must take time to
participate in maintaining job descriptions.
More important, however, people forget
just how important job descriptions are as preventive medicine. People forget
to floss their teeth until they begin to have gum problems. In just the same
way, people forget to maintain job descriptions until six months after an
incumbent has left the job and the new person isn't doing what the boss wants.
Then it becomes a crisis, and it takes a lot more effort to figure out whether
the problem is a job performance problem, a personality clash between
supervisor and subordinate, or simply that the new person never was told
clearly what the job entailed.
Doing It Right the First
Yet, one of the most common reasons a job
description isn't used is because it isn't useful. In other words, it lacks
validity, and therefore it fails to achieve its potential.
A job description is valid to the extent
that it accurately reflects job content. An out-of-date job description
obviously is not valid. But even descriptions written yesterday can suffer from
a lack of validity. A carefully conducted job analysis will go a long way
toward heading off validity problems, but in the end the responsibility rests
with the individual who actually writes the finished product.
If the final written job description fails
to accurately reflect the job, consider some of the possible consequences:
Candidates without the proper qualifications may be referred to department
heads for hiring or promotion; jobs may be ranked improperly with others in
terms of their worth to the organization; and employees may end up struggling
to achieve unrealistic standards of performance. And this is only the tip of
The typical job description is often
deficient in at least one of the following ways:
- The description exaggerates or
downplays the importance of the job.
- It fails to pinpoint the critical
elements that differentiate between successful and unsuccessful job
- It ignores the decision-making aspects
of the job.
- It either fails to focus on the job
incumbent's actual behavior or it defines required behavior in ambiguous
- It describes worker requirements or
characteristics that are not really needed to succeed in the job.
- Above all, many job descriptions (an
example of which follows) fail to answer some of the most basic questions that
someone coming into the job might have. Suppose that you are a newly hired
secretary for the position described. Would you have enough information about
the job to feel confident about what was expected of you and about your ability
to meet the job's performance standards?