It’s widely stated that the best job performance starts with a good job description, but the fact is you don’t need one. Of course, if you’ve created a company where the titles are creative—chief architect of change, chief fun arranger, meter/greeter/popcorn eater—you need to set down a few things on paper to make sure you and your new hire understand one another. But generally, job descriptions are dreary to read and to write and don’t do much to elucidate anyone. There’s no law saying you must write them.
Okay, but the most visited article in the Starting a Business section of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website is “Writing Effective Job Descriptions1.” We wondered why. The answer is elusive, but a human resource management professor, Ken Pinnock, associate director of employee relations and employee services at the University of Denver, gave us several reasons that small businesses might think writing job descriptions should precede any hiring decision. Not that he believes they are in every case necessary.
- Employees often feel more comfortable when they have a job description. “It seems to clarify expectations. There seems to be a comfort level in terms of, ‘Here’s what I need to know,’” he said in a phone interview.
- Job postings are easier to create if you already have job descriptions in your back pocket. You can pull information from them and be reasonably sure you haven’t left out any important duties or competencies.
- When an employee is injured, Pinnock said, it’s helpful to have a formal description of the essential duties of the job because you might have to “assess…can this person perform these duties or might they need leave? or might this move into a more formal issue with respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act?” Perhaps you will have to send an essential duties list to a health care provider or to a state workers’ compensation board, in which case, it’s good to have it written up in advance.
- In a job interview, the list of duties can actually be used to structure the conversation. If you do that, said Pinnock, “pulling interview questions right from the job description, which by definition makes the questions job-related,” you can avoid legal pitfalls that can occur when you ask personal questions with no relevance to the candidate’s abilities.
- Job descriptions can be helpful in compensation decisions. A title and a list of duties give you a basis for doing comparisons. If you have a job description, it’s easy to compare pay levels in survey data. Filling a newly created position becomes less of a mystery once you set down the essential duties and do an online search to see what other companies are paying for this job.
So there you have five good uses for job descriptions. However, said Pinnock, “With respect to small businesses, the question I would raise is do they really need job descriptions.” For companies that have fewer than 25 employees, Pinnock said job descriptions are not at all necessary. Even at the 50-employee point, many times “it’s really clear what are the expectations of each person’s role [and] what are the key skills that are needed for somebody to come in and take that role and do the work.”
Problems Can Occur
Job descriptions go out of date, and that’s their biggest drawback. You have to keep them current or that can cause problems with interviews, compensation decisions, and especially injury and workers’ compensation decisions. So when jobs morph and grow and technology changes so the basic details of the job are different than when the description was written, someone on your staff has to update the job description, and that’s an administrative chore that can eat up precious hours in a growing company. For more on this point, just cruise around online reading HR horror stories.2
“The other issue,” said Pinnock, “kind of goes back to a union mindset in the 20th century where, you know: ‘This is my job and I’m not going to deviate from it.’” He said that in a union or non-union environment, employees can argue, “‘That’s not what my job description says.’ And that’s a challenge.” Such an attitude can be given legs by the simple act of having employees sign to acknowledge they have received a copy of their job description. He strongly recommends against requiring sign-offs that implicitly convey the message, “These are my duties, plain and clear,” or that seem to make the job description “a contractual type document.” A job description is not meant to fully describe everything a job might entail. “I tell people to think of it as a snapshot. To give [the employee] an idea of what’s required.”
If you do write one, keep it short, one page or maybe two at most. Identify and label the essential duties. List additional duties that you will hold the employee responsible for. Spell out the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform the job. And add the disclaimer, “Other duties as assigned.”
Pinnock said that he also adds a statement noting that “this job description is not all-inclusive or in no way is meant to spell out all the duties, assignments, or tasks that may be required in the course of the work.”
As to why the U.S. Small Business Administration is attracting so many new small business owners to read up on writing job descriptions, Pinnock acknowledged that “they are difficult to write because you have to try to cram a lot of information into one or two pages [that will] capture and encapsulate the position.”
Other resources he suggested are the Society for Human Resource Management (where a local chapter member might provide some good, practical advice) or a local employer association3 such as MRA–The Management Association.4 It offers templates and sample job descriptions plus survey data to determine if you are paying a competitive wage in, say, Milwaukee. Every state has its own labor laws, so you need local advice, and this is where to get it if you’re in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, or Iowa. There’s also a 24-hour hotline where you can call and speak to an HR professional.
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