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The Anatomy of a Job Description and 7 Steps to Writing One

March 20, 2013

By: Omnia Group

Nothing could be more fun and exciting than... writing a job description! Except maybe watching paint dry. Ok, it's really more of a necessary evil than an interesting undertaking, unless you are a weirdo. Like many business documents, job descriptions are often overlooked, avoided, outdated, or cobbled together at the last minute.  As painful as they are to write, they really can be helpful.

So why do you need one?

A clearly written position description can be used in a few ways:

  • Budgeting and planning for personnel decisions: It is a good way to justify the need to hire someone and account for their salary in the budget. Most organizations don't want to shell out the money to hire unless it is undeniable that the new employee will be kept busy filling a vital need instead of twiddling their thumbs all day.
  • Interviewing and onboarding:  It can explain overall functions when searching for and onboarding new employees.  You can't tell if a candidate is promising unless you can compare their experience with their projected duties.
  • Performance evaluations: It can be the basis for annual reviews by clarifying which duties should have been done regularly over the year.

What it is and isn't:
A job description is a 1-page document (2 max) that provides a brief overview of the majority of an employee's tasks. It should be more elaborate than writing a job posting, but MUCH is less involved than a procedure manual. A rule of thumb: It should tell a person what they are supposed to do, but not how they are supposed to do it.

7 Steps for writing a job description:

1. Ack! The terror of an empty page! To get started, jot down a list of what the person will be doing around 90% of the time. This does not have to be beautiful, but trust me, it helps to just get something on paper!
2. Break it down into a list of individual functions, but resist the urge to write down every function step. You don’t have to detail: “8:55 am – Check email, 9:02 am – Make Coffee, 9:07 am Empty Trash”…you get the idea. Keep it very basic, don't worry about it seeming too short... these things have a way of growing all by themselves.
3. Group similar tasks together. For example: if the employee is updating 3 or 4 different computer systems, lump them all together under data entry.
4. Unless it addresses a particularly sore spot for management, don't include anything for which every employee is responsible anyway.  This list should be specific to the position. Showing up to work on time, maintaining confidentiality, respecting company property, not punching co-workers in the nose... these things are better outlined in the employee handbook.
5. Use concise language: Remember, the person reading this may be a nervous interviewee or an overtaxed HR professional with a pile of 20 of them to look through. They need to get to the heart of the matter without muscling through a wall of "therebys" "hithertos" "henceforths" and "whereases." For heaven's sake, leave out the "whereases"!!
6. When you have a nice healthy list, stop. Remember, this is not a legally binding contract, so you do not need to include any imaginable assignment. But if it makes you nervous about leaving something unlisted, add the magic words, "Other duties as assigned."
7. Make a template: The first one is always the hardest, so when completed, make it a template for all the ones that follow.

Special situations:
Depending on the company and the employee, more or less flexibility may be needed. At Omnia, we have a lot of people who take on projects outside their normal job descriptions. Our marketing manager is also our event planner. Our accounting person takes care of catering, and our receptionist cleans stuff (we have a housekeeping crew, our receptionist just likes to clean!) We have extremely low turnover, and this flexibility is part of the reason why.

Some employees need to know exactly what is expected of them to know exactly how to go above and beyond (see…it works two-fold!). However, if you've got someone who is constantly referring to his/her job description and saying, "that's not in my job description," there is more likely a problem with the employee, not the job description. In this case…it may be necessary to underline the “Other duties as assigned” bullet… twice.

Omnia Group

For over 30 years, we’ve helped organizations across the world improve and optimize their workforce operations and company cultures. While we take a unique, scientific approach to hiring, development and retention, we also believe every business is a people business. Our passionate advisors always put people first.

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