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The job description — roadmap to a successful employment relationship

June 29, 2011

Written job descriptions can be the bane of most businesses, especially startups and small businesses.  They take time to write.  They may need frequent revision.  No one reads them.  They are forms for forms’ sake, loved only by lawyers and HR geeks.  I’ve heard them all.

In fact, accurate, written job descriptions are one of the best tools an employer has to guide ongoing relationships with employees.  Properly used, they help in hiring, evaluating performance, imposing discipline, avoiding overtime violations, setting salaries, considering accommodations, and defending lawsuits.

How to write them:

  • Start early.  Write a job description when you start the hiring process.  Write one for each position you’re going to hire someone into.  Do it before you advertise or interview for the position.
  • Accuracy is key.  Talk to your colleagues, supervisors, and employees about what a job actually entails on a day to day basis.  Include that information in the job description.  It should be a true picture of what the employee will do.
  • Revise when needed.  Review and if necessary revise them to reflect reality at least annually.
  • Get expert input.  Have HR or a consultant or lawyer review them for technical compliance and completeness.

What to put in them:

  • The basics — title, salary, full time/part time, benefits.
  • Duties, responsibilities, and essential functions.  State up front the duties the job was created for and which the employee will be doing regularly.  Also describe occasional or secondary duties and include a catch-all “and other duties as assigned” to maintain flexibility.
  • Skills, experience, and requirements needed.  List physical, mental, technological and other skills needed to do the work.  (But be honest — don’t require a college degree for a manual labor position.)  List what experience  is needed or desired.  If some sort of license is required, list it, whether it’s a drivers license or a medical license.  Don’t forget the physical stuff, like frequent standing, sitting, lifting, pulling, typing, etc.
  • Exemption criteria.  If the position is considered exempt from overtime laws, specify why.  Does it supervise a department?  Assist management with general policies?  Require professional education and licensure?  Say so.
  • Disclaimer.  Not necessary, but if it makes you feel better, say that the description isn’t a contract and can be revised without notice.  But please keep the legalese to a minimum.

When to use them:

  • When hiring.  Postings should refer to qualifications and skills needed and describe job duties and responsibilities.  Let your applicants self-select out of jobs they are not qualified for or interested in.  During interviews, focus on the job requirements, which will help avoid inappropriate questions.
  • For evaluation and discipline.  The job description sets out the duties.  Did the employee perform them?  If so, give her a good evaluation.  If not, consider discipline.  It’s that simple.
  • For overtime classification.  Whether a position is exempt from overtime rules or not depends on what the position does.  So examine your job description to see whether it meets the criteria for an exemption — just like a jury will be doing if you get sued!  If it doesn’t, pay the employee hourly.
  • To discuss accommodations.  Whether a disabled employee is entitled to an accommodation, and if so what accommodations are reasonable, depend on the job duties, essential functions, and physical requirements of the position.  All of those should be in the job description.  Use it as an outline to discuss what the job requires and what can be done to permit the employee to do it.

Job descriptions may take some care and feeding.  But when used properly they are extremely valuable when it comes to managing expectations and avoiding surprises — and surprises lead to lawsuits.  And if a suit is filed, the job description will help establish legitimate reasons for whatever happened.

Small investment, big potential upside — isn’t that what you went into business for?

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