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Job descriptions your road map for workplace success

June 19, 2014

Do you know where your relationships with your employees are going? The best way to make sure they stay on the right track with effective written job descriptions.

Yes, I know. Written job descriptions a pain in the @$$. They are hard to write. No one reads them. You have to update them all the time. No one reads them. A client once told me they are forms for forms’ sake, loved only by lawyers and HR geeks — of little or no practical use or value.

But used correctly, written job descriptions can be one of an employer’s best tools to ensure good relationships with employees. They are the road map without which neither employer nor employee knows where they are going — or even if they are going the same direction. Good job descriptions keep everyone on the same page. They foster engagement by showing employees at any level how their work serves the company mission, and what that mission is. They provide employees with concrete, practical feedback on what’s working and what’s not. They help manage expectations about what it takes to succeed. If you want to take one step to maximize your workers’ contribution to the company — which is kind of what human resources is all about, after all — draft and use written job descriptions for every position.

Not coincidentally, written job descriptions can also help employers — particularly newer or smaller employers without armies of HR staffers with alphabet-soup credentials following their names — avoid employment litigation or minimize its impact if it does come up. (And, I hate to say it, if you’re at all successful it’s not a question of if but when.) Properly used, they help in hiring, evaluating performance, imposing discipline, avoiding overtime violations, setting salaries, considering accommodations, and defending lawsuits.

OK so far? Good — let’s write (or revise) those buggers to get the best bang for our job description buck.

How to write them:

  • Write it down. I know, you’re small, you’re new, you’re nimble, things change fast, did I miss any? No time to write stuff down. Listen to me: an oral job description is meaningless. If employer and employee cannot agree on a starting point for the relationship, the relationship is doomed. Write job descriptions down and keep them, on the back of a cocktail napkin if need be.
  • 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. Reality counts here — this should not be an aspirational document. It should be a true picture of what the employee will do.
  • Revise when needed.  Review and revise them frequently. If it’s been more than a year, time to dust them off and make sure they’re still accurate.
  • Get expert input.  Have HR or a consultant or lawyer review them for technical compliance and completeness.
  • Give it to the employee. Kinda hope that goes without saying, but….

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 real — 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.

Listen to your attorney. Get those job descriptions in writing. Share ’em. Use ’em. It’s a little investment that will pay off in better relations with your employees and less risk to your wallet.

  1. Well said, Casey. Job descriptions, while seemingly mundane ‘busy work’, are essential to many core HR processes. I’ve found that the best descriptions are collaboratively created by the hiring manager and competent HR professionals, and are dynamic. As you’ve stated, looking at these every year or so and updating them is necessary to keeping pace with the organization’s needs, market practices for compensation benchmarking, hiring and performance management. Thanks for sharing the legal perspective on this topic.

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