It happens all the time. The job changes. The job description doesn’t. Does it matter?
Yes it does, says human resources consultant Kari Scanlon. But in most workplaces job descriptions are underutilized – often seen as another to-do for the HR department, when in fact, well-written and updated job descriptions can be extremely beneficial to the manager and the company.
“Job descriptions set the expectations for the position,” says Scanlon. “They should provide insight into the position’s top responsibilities and the working relations needed for success.”
“While some find them tedious to write, they should not be merely filed away, they should be integrated with your hiring, selection, performance and compensation practices,” says Vernon.
To start, job descriptions should be viewed as a key element to the hiring process. If you use a dated job description when hiring – say you are filling a new position without updating that job description, or have high turnover in a certain area, it’s important to look at the job description. What’s missing? What has changed? It’s not just a piece of paper because when done right, it’s a guide. An updated job description helps new people hiring in this role quickly get up to speed on key requirements needed in that employee, whether a new employee or existing hire. This can also be helpful when an internal candidate wants to transfer into a new position. HR can quickly identify whether or not they meet the job requirements outlined in a job description, or may need training if they are a good fit for the company.
“I use job descriptions as the core document to develop my employment ads,” says Vernon. “Since most companies are placing ads online, with unlimited text (available to write the job ad), you really get the opportunity to take the most important components of your job description and share a more complete listing of what the job duties really entail.”
Job descriptions can also help answer questions about compensation, says Scanlon. Both in the initial interview process, and also when it comes time for an annual review. When the job duties and qualifications are defined, the recruiter can establish the appropriate salary range. Also, managers can justify differences in pay when employees ask about compensation.
“It’s a lot easier to explain why someone isn’t getting a bigger raise when the manager can look at specific job duties or qualifications that the employee might not be meeting,” says Scanlon.
Job descriptions should be reviewed with the performance appraisal, Scanlon points out. This is a great time to ensure that the job description is up-to-date and an appropriate time to review with your employee the requirements and expectations for the position. Job descriptions can also be used during the progressive discipline process. Managers are able to reference the job duties that are not being met.
“It can be nicer to tell someone that they are not meeting the deadlines as listed in the job description rather than telling someone that they are just always late,” says Scanlon, who adds that providing this thorough detail can move the conversation from an accusation of being late all the time to a solution for meeting the deadlines listed in black and white.
Job descriptions are also helpful from an HR perspective in complying with Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Labor Standards Act. Outdated job descriptions can be a determent if an employee accuses a company of a wrongful employment practice, says Scanlon.
“It’s a lot easier to show a company knows what it’s doing when its documents are up-to-date,” says Scanlon. “Updated job descriptions show that the company understood the requirements of the job and let them evolve as the company grew.”
Vernon also relies on updated job descriptions to focus in on responsibilities and competencies, when scripting her interview questions. Updating each job description as the position evolves, and/or as requirements change is essential to finding the right candidate and making the right hire. And if you deepen your interview questions – pulling heavily from the actual responsibilities – not just generic questions – you’ll learn much more about the capabilities of your candidates, adds Vernon.
The job description can then be used as a checklist to help the new employee learn about the job. It’s also key to training new employees and training existing employees. The job description can include training requirements that serve as that checklist as training and new education/technologies are completed.
The job description is another crucial and valuable tool when conducting employee performance appraisals. Says Vernon: “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel when you can consolidate the tasks, add a rating system, pick your favorite competencies and evaluate your employee specifically on what they’re expected to do in the position.”
The other piece of job descriptions is that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers with 15 or more employees are required to have clear job specifications, including listing all the physical and mental requirements, tools and work conditions in addition to the tasks, Vernon points out.
“These are supposed to be reviewed and updated, as applicable, every time the position is open for new applicants,” says Vernon. “While the ADA doesn’t require job descriptions per se, the job specifications sure sound a lot like a job description. So, you should create a thorough tool that complies with the law and can be used for your employment, training, performance and even disciplinary action processes.”
From an ADA and discriminatory perspective, the most important piece is to ensure that you’re not discriminating against an employee because you’re assuming based on a visible disability that the person cannot perform the job, says Vernon. So, it’s important to share the job description with all your candidates (whether verbally or in writing) and then ask whether they can perform all the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation. If your job description lists that the person needs to lift 50 pounds throughout the day and the candidate has a back issue, this opens the door for employees to self-select themselves out of consideration because they can’t perform the job or to ask for a reasonable accommodation.
“We definitely don’t want to second guess what we think someone can do by looking at them,” says Vernon. “That just opens us up to legal action.”
A job description is more than just a document to create and file away. It’s a resource, an underused tool that needs to be updated over time as a position evolves or changes. It’s like the resume of the job seeker: If they don’t update it every 6 months to a year, they forget key accomplishments, or have a document that doesn’t best represent the skills and experiences obtained in one’s career. Like a job seeker updating a resume, an HR professional should update and revise job descriptions regularly now to avoid problems in the future.
10 key elements of a good job description
- Job summary
- Primary responsibilities
- Secondary responsibilities
- Education and experience requirements
- Knowledge, skills and abilities
- Physical and mental requirements
- Tools and equipment
- Working conditions
Source: HR consultant Arlene Vernon