The Basics of Writing a Good Job Description

When you are asking someone to perform a task, what you want done and what he or she thinks you want can often result in two totally different outcomes. This is easily compounded when brought in to the workplace. However, once a job description is in place, it offers both the employer and employee the clarity, focus and expectations for any position and, in doing so, eliminates this problem. Of equal importance, clear job descriptions help employees to work smarter and become more effective, thus increasing an organization’s effectiveness.



Why You Should Know How to Write Job Descriptions                                                           


·         A job description (JD) is used to explain an employee’s duties and responsibilities. A JD sets up the responsibilities so that an employee knows what he or she is to do and what is expected of him or her to be successful in the job. In addition, it allows the employee to ask specific questions as to what he or she doesn’t understand about a job.


·         A job description is helpful in judging how well an employee is doing on each part of his or her assignment.


·         A comparison of an employee’s job performance with the job description can show where an employee needs special training or additional coaching as he or she develops and grows within a position.


·         A JD assists a manager in conducting constructive performance appraisals and in locating an employee’s strengths and weaknesses.


·         A JD can become a key tool in the design and administration of a pay/wage program for any given job.


In summary, a basic part of a manager’s skills is the ability to describe the duties and responsibilities of the jobs he or she supervises in clear, accurate and technically correct language.



General Recommendations in Writing a Job Description                                                          


A job description should describe a job as it exists now, not as it will exist sometime in the future. Planned changes in job content or structure frequently do not occur when, and in the same manner as, they are expected to occur. If the structure of a job is changing dramatically at the time the job description is being prepared, or is expected to change in the very near future, it is wise to postpone the preparation or augmentation of the job description until the restructuring has been completed.


If a core job is occupied by more than one person, there may also be different responsibilities each employee performs as well. In this case, incorporate the principal elements of the job into a single description. Take the minor differences in responsibilities and break them down as subsections to the core responsibilities. Note that differences occurring in the level or quality of work will be reflected in the standards of success set for each area of responsibility within a specific job.



What a Job Description Should Contain                                                                                     


Writing a job description should not be an arduous task. Some basic components should exist in every job description. These are:


·         A Job title. Job titles should describe both the nature and level of the work performed by the job incumbents.     Titles such as “Clerk,” “Instructor,” “Analyst” and “Mechanic” indicate the general nature of the work, that is, the principal duties and responsibilities of the incumbents. 


Other components of the job title, such as “Senior,” “Specialist” and “Lead,” indicate the level of work.  It is often useful to include the department name in the job title for purposes of clarity (“Dental Clinic Aide” or “Quality Control Technician”). Care should be taken to avoid titles which are demeaning and/or patronizing (“Helper”) or which overstate the importance of the work performed (“Sanitary Engineer” instead of “Janitor”).


Job titles should not reflect a sexist or age orientation, such as “Maintenance Man,” “Stewardess,” “Jr. Accountant,” or “Copy Boy.”


·         The location of the job, including the section and department.


·         Job Status. Indicate whether the job is exempt or non-exempt (salaried or hourly with overtime) while also sharing whether the job is regular or temporary, full-time or part-time.


·         Job Summary. In one sentence, the summary states the general nature and purpose of the job, becoming an umbrella for the job responsibilities, without directly listing one responsibility. The summary is usually easier to write after completing the rest of the JD and should provide a general overview of the job in as few words as possible.


·         Job duties or responsibilities. Typically each job duty or responsibility which accounts for more than 5 percent of the employee’s time should be included.   The last “bullet” at the end of the job duties and responsibilities section should state that the JD is not all-inclusive and can be added to verbally or in writing by the employee’s supervisor.


·         Relationship of the job to other positions. Factors such as to whom the job title will report and, if applicable, his or her supervisory responsibilities are listed directly after the job duties and responsibilities section.


·         Job requirements. Such factors as the amount of education, experience, initiative, judgment, and interpersonal and processing skills necessary for proper job performance should be defined. The levels of general educational development and the knowledge and skills normally acquired on the job should be stated at minimum levels for the success of the position and be reflective of the job duties and responsibilities. If the requirements are inflated, they could screen out candidates who are actually qualified to perform the job.


·         Working conditions. If applicable, this section includes any conditions in the work environment that the employee may find unpleasant or hazardous.  Specifically describe what working conditions are unpleasant or dangerous and how frequently/long incumbents can be exposed to the conditions.  If conditions are safe, this section does not need to be included in the JD.


Note that legally, in a non-union environment, an employee does not need to have a job description in order to be informed what to do. Anything his or her immediate supervisor tells him or her to do that is not an unsafe act is to be performed by an employee or it could be considered insubordination.


·         Employee signature. The last statement on a JD, signed by the employee, should be similar to the following:


I have read and received a copy of my job description.  I understand this overrides anything I have been given or told in the past.  I further understand that I am expected to follow my job as is outlined above and if I have any questions concerning what is expected of me, I will speak with my immediate supervisor.



In Summary                                                                                                                                      


The above outline need not be followed exactly; however, when writing a JD, one needs to ensure that it is both clear and concise, using no wasted words. In a JD it may be feasible to group two or more of the foregoing items together.   For example, “job duties” and “working conditions” can be under one heading.   For some jobs, certain areas may not be applicable.   For example, in preparing a job description for a salesperson, it is obvious that the person does not experience extreme working conditions. 


Job descriptions should always be stored in a central location so positions can be easily reviewed and compared. It is also a good practice to put a signed copy in an employee’s personnel file so that at appraisal time, the document can be reviewed and revised.


In summary, a job description has four main characteristics; a title, the relationship of the job to other positions, the duties and responsibilities, and the skills and education requirements for the job.    Any job description that does not clearly define these four characteristics is inefficient, inadequate and lacks the clarity for an employee to succeed.





About the author:


Ron Smedley is president of Synergistic Resource Associates, a full-service human resource/development consulting group that works directly with both marketplace and ministry organizations.  As a professional human resource generalist, Ron is often called upon in the area of labor law interpretation and policy/procedure writing with the focus on practically, strategically, and relationally synergizing the systems of the organization with the development of their leadership and employees.  Besides consulting full-time, Ron instructs graduate adult students at Biola University and Claremont Graduate Universities within leadership, performance management, personal and corporate conflict, human resource strategy and ethics courses.


Ron’s passion is seeing men, women and organizations grow beyond their paradigm and the “box” they so often place themselves within.  For questions or support surrounding this article or other people development areas, email him at or call 714.993.5003. His office is located in Placentia, CA.


Amtec Bitz Newsletters

Essential industry highlights & expert insights every month.

Latest Posts

View all posts