Updating Job Descriptions

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:19 PM EDT

"Job description" is a very mundane title for a document that serves so many important functions in an organization. Often outdated, overlooked, and under-considered, the failure to deal seriously with these humble documents can trigger considerable organizational erosion.

If given the respect they deserve, job descriptions can provide employees with the structure they need to do their jobs and, simultaneously, the latitude to grow into positions of greater responsibility and reward. Collectively, job descriptions can reflect the heritage, current challenges, and dreams of an organization.

What You Need to KnowWhat's the purpose of a job description?

Employees need to know what is expected of them on the job: who they report to, what their responsibilities and duties are, and what limitations there might be. If people lack this sort of guidance, they can easily get off track. With good job descriptions, employee turnover can be reduced, and you may well see a rise in productivity and individual initiative.

How regularly should job descriptions be reviewed?

Changing a job description only when you need a replacement for that position may seem convenient, but it is not the best approach. For one thing, you may be in such a hurry to hire a replacement that you cannot give the job description the consideration it needs in order to be useful to either the individual or the department.

It is better to schedule regular reviews of all job descriptions. This way you have the current jobholder as a resource, a person who can provide input on how to change the job description to better fit current responsibilities and future potential. Work with them—they may even do the work for you!

When someone announces that a certain task isn't part of their job, how can I tell whether it's the person or the job description that's wrong?

This is a common problem, especially among well established companies. Jobs and even departments begin to resemble little fiefdoms in which the long-time employees behave more like royalty than peers. If only a single source is complaining, you should probably take a careful look at the job description—but you would be wise, too, to find out if the job requirements might not have begun to outpace the employee's aspirations. In either case, meeting with the employee and his or her manager in a neutral setting is a good place to begin to find the answer.

However, if you are hearing complaints from multiple sources, it may be time to get a team together to take a critical look at all your job descriptions.

What to DoLook At the Larger Picture before Focusing On the Details

Job descriptions are not static documents, nor do they stand alone. Even if you plan to revise only one job description, work through the following steps before changing any part of the description:

  • Review the organization's visions, goals, and objectives to see if they have changed since the job description was written.
  • Have a look at the department in which the job resides. Has it changed direction, or is it about to?
  • Discuss with the current jobholder how closely their job fits the present description.
  • Talk to others who work directly with that person to check that they agree.
  • If anything has been added to the job but not to the description, or the level of responsibility and/or the skills have changed, keep in mind that the level of compensation may also need to be reviewed.
  • Review the job's relationship to other jobs in the organization and to the organization as a whole. To avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, be sure that those relationships are mentioned in all affected job descriptions, and that they are made clear during hiring and employee orientation.
Redraft the Job Description

For the most part, lead responsibility for writing job descriptions has rested with the human resources department. In recent years, however, the team has expanded to include others, simply because of the overlapping nature of jobs with other departments, and other managers' direct knowledge of the way in which those jobs function and relate to other jobs within the same department.

After you have gathered as much information as you can, apply it to the job description and verify that:

  • the job title is accurate;
  • all responsibilities, duties, and tasks associated with the job are listed in order of priority, starting with the most important;
  • challenges and objectives are spelled out in detail. These will be especially important in performance reviews—especially when they affect bonus, pay raise, or promotion decisions;
  • the chain of command is clear—list the person or people (titles only) to whom the jobholder reports. Include an organization chart if you think it would be helpful;
  • management's expectations for the jobholder are clear and concise;
  • you allow enough flexibility for the position to grow.
Assess the Style of the Job Description

Be sure that:

  • the language in the job description is unambiguous. Any ambiguity will later come back in the form of a complaint from the jobholder ("That's not what it says in my job description!"), or from the manager ("He's just not able to live up to my expectations!").
  • tasks are described in short, precise sentences, using active verbs like: "to implement" or "to design and develop."
  • the verbs have direct objects. For example: "To plan and implement a major office relocation," or "To design book jackets for our children's titles."
  • the people who helped reconfigure the job description see the final draft before it becomes official. This will give them the opportunity to make fine adjustments and, more importantly, will let them know their input matters.
Update and Review Periodically

Inevitable changes in the nature of the organization, such as the size, staffing, and products or services on offer, should compel you to commit to an annual review of all job descriptions. Naturally, when positions are vacated, you have the perfect opportunity to overhaul the job description without having the burden of doing all of them at once.

Another good idea is to provide new employees—and new job descriptions—with a quality review after three or four months. If a few adjustments need to be made, they can be done before minor problems become major problems.

When Recruiting Online, Write a Compelling Job Description

If they come across an exceptional posting, "just-browsing" job seekers may become so intrigued that they will apply, even when they had not really intended to. Active seekers—many of whom will have to go through the upheaval of relocation—may need additional encouragement to apply, and thus the job description may also need to describe the community and surroundings, and include information on the local recreation facilities, schools, crime rate, demographics, and so on.

Once you have decided to make use of the Internet to attract and recruit new employees, research where best to list your job vacancy. There are links to companies with more information and services at the end of this article.

Remember the golden rules

Here are some pointers about using your job description as a recruitment tool:

  • Open with an executive summary. You must hook the reader quickly or he or she will move on.
  • Include the salary range, benefits package, and secondary benefits (flextime, continuing education, etc.) Avoid jargon.
  • To pique (even passive) readers' interest, list job tasks as "challenges"
  • Include the specific qualifications and skills needed.
  • Talk about the company: its history, vision, role in the community, and employee philosophy.
  • Compare the organization with competitors, and explain why it excels and attracts the best people. Include information about its size, staffing, perhaps even brief summaries of budget and non-proprietary sales information. Readers will gain a better sense of whether the company would be a good fit for them.
  • Encourage readers to visit your Web site—but make sure it's up to date, that it reflects the image and style you have outlined in the job description, and that it supports the information in the advertisement.
What to AvoidYou See Job Descriptions as Isolated Documents

Jobs are an organization's foundation; people are the cement holding the foundation together. If job descriptions fail to reflect the dynamic relationship between individuals within and between departments, the tendency is for individuals and departments to become isolated from one another and have little regard for the interactions needed to accomplish organizational goals. Neglected job descriptions cause employees to lose their enthusiasm, managers to lose sight of one another and their objectives, and—eventually—the organization to lose market share.

Your Job Description Attracts Too Few Applicants

Perhaps you have written the job description too narrowly, due to the specialized nature of the job. You can approach finding a solution in a couple ways. First, by widening your recruitment net, you might attract applicants with the right balance of knowledge, skills, and experience. But it might also mean more expense—a longer recruitment period, hiring a headhunter, and placing more ads in a larger variety of media, including specialty trade publications and on the Internet. It might also mean you would have to offer a better compensation package to attract the talent you need from afar.

The other solution might be to train from within. The job description, in that case, could be written to attract someone with the right characteristics and attributes, rather than the precise experience you desire. On the upside, you might be able to hire someone locally, perhaps with less experience—but who would command a lower salary. On the downside, the extensive training time needed for the new person to achieve competency could be just as expensive.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Cushway, Barry. The Handbook of Model Job Descriptions. London: Kogan Page, 2003.

Fowler, Alan. Writing Job Descriptions. Woodstock, NY: Beekman Publishing, 2000.

Web Sites:

ExecSearches.com: www.execsearches.com

HRnext : www.hrnext.com

NationJob Network: www.nationjob.com

Small Business Administration, Online Women's Business Center: www.onlinewbc.gov