September 24, 2012
How to Write Job Descriptions: Basic Elements and Format (Available to nonsubscribers.)

Basic Elements of a Good Job Description

Most job descriptions contain: (1) job identification, (2) job summary or purpose, (3) essential functions and additional responsibilities, (4) accountabilities, and (5) job specifications. This framework may vary from employer to employer and from job to job. The basic elements will be discussed and the overall format of the job description will be discussed further in this chapter.

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One important thing to remember is that all job descriptions within an organization should follow the same format. Those individuals responsible for writing them should receive similar instructions and follow the same guidelines so that valid comparisons can be made among jobs.

Job Identification

This is the part that almost everyone takes for granted. It usually looks something like this:

_________________________________________   ___________________________________
Job Title   Job Code
_________________________________________   ___________________________________
FLSA Status   Plant/Division
_________________________________________   ___________________________________
Immediate Supervisor (Title)   Department
_________________________________________   ___________________________________
Written By   Date
_________________________________________   ___________________________________
Approved By   Date

 

This information may be arranged in a number of ways. For example, a smaller company may simply ask for the job title, department, supervisor’s title, and the date. One thing to remember in designing the job identification section is that you want to include only items of information that are relatively permanent. For example, if you include the name of the incumbent’s supervisor and a month later the supervisor is promoted or leaves the company, all the descriptions with that name will have to be pulled from the files and revised.

What’s in a Title?

The most important element in this section is the job title. A job title that identifies the job accurately and precisely is valuable: (1) to the jobholder, or to someone new coming into the job; (2) for purposes of establishing the relationships among jobs; and (3) for purposes of comparing the job with others in the organization. A good job title:

  • Describes the job in a word or two.
  • Indicates the job’s specific field of activity, its relationship to that field, and its professional standing.
  • Provides some form of prestige to the jobholder.
  • Accurately reflects the job’s content, purpose, and scope of responsibility. (For example, if you have about 20 employees in your organization and one person is responsible for office and clerical support functions, it’s more appropriate to title that job “Office Manager” than it is to term it “Operations Director.”
  • Should be as brief as possible, and if it consists of more than one word it should be in natural order (for example, “Computer Operator,” not “Operator, Computer”) so that it will be easy to use in written or spoken form.
  • Should indicate skill level or supervisory level, where valid distinctions exist.
  • Should be similar or identical to one of the titles the job has had in the past, so employees and supervisors won’t have to learn a completely new vocabulary every time job descriptions are written or revised.

In the intermediate stages of preparing job descriptions, “working titles” may be used to identify jobs. You may in fact have several titles for some job descriptions. Choosing a final title is important because it is the fast step in defining the job and establishing a rank order with other jobs. It will be used for department, division, or functional groups, as a guide for promotions and transfers, and as an indicator of training and development requirements. Job titles are especially important when it comes to comparing the job with similar jobs in other organizations. Such comparisons are critical when developing
a wage and salary structure, conducting wage and salary surveys, and recruiting new employees.

Job titles should set each job apart from the other jobs. For example, the title “machine operator” indicates in a general way what the job is. Differences in degrees of skill required should be clarified by adding prefixes indicating the purpose for which the machine is used or the kind of machine operation: for example, “pneumatic drilling machine operator.” Another point to remember is that job titles should be consistent within the company. If “junior,” “intermediate,” and “senior” designations are
made in one department, they should be used to make similar distinctions in other departments.

Job Code

Another major item in the job identification section is the job code. This refers to the employer’s unique combination of numbers or letters that the company has assigned to the job. Many firms have either used or adapted the six-digit numerical code used by the Department of Labor in its Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), now known as the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). (See discussion of the DOT and O*NET following). Other companies set up their own set of numbers and letters to denote various categories for internal HR use. For example, the first letter of the code might be 1 for exempt or 2 for nonexempt; the second might be 3 or 4 for supervisory or nonsupervisory; the third 1 through 9 for job categories under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (used in form EEO-1); the fourth might denote which, if any, bonus compensation program the job is part of, etc.

Other Identification

The next item, FLSA status, simply refers to the exempt or nonexempt status of the job under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The other two items are for the names and signatures of the author of the job description and the final approval of the job description. (Approvals are discussed in more detail elsewhere in this book; for working purposes, an approval sheet should be attached to each job description draft.)

Using the O*NET

The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) database takes the place of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) as a primary source of occupational information. The O*NET database is a comprehensive resource for obtaining job descriptions for thousands of jobs. The database was devel oped to help employers properly categorize positions within their organization. The O*NET project is administered and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training
Administration (ETA). Access O*NET through the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/.

O*NET Online is an application that was created to provide broad access to the O*NET database of occupational information. The O*NET database includes information on skills, abilities, knowledge, work activities, and interests associated with occupations. This information can be used to facilitate building position descriptions and aligning training with current workplace needs. Information in O*NET is available for over 950 occupations. Each occupational title and code is based on the most current version of the Standard Occupational Classification system.

The online O*NET service helps employers browse job descriptions by key word, skills sets or by other classification systems (e.g., old DOT Code, Standard Occupational Classifications (SOC) and Registered Apprenticeship Information System (RAIS)).

The O*NET system is organized into six major domains, listed below. The structure enables the user to focus on areas of information that specify the key attributes and characteristics of workers and occupations. For more information, go to http://online.onetcenter.org/help/content_model/.

Briefly, the six major domains in O*NET are:

Worker Characteristics—Defined as enduring qualities of individuals that may influence how they approach tasks and how they acquire work-relevant knowledge and skills.

Worker Requirements—Commonly known as skills. Skills may be further divided into basic skills (skills, such as reading, that facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge) and cross-functional skills (skills, such as problem solving, that extend across several domains of activities).

Experience Requirements—Requirements related to experiential backgrounds of workers in an occupation or group of occupations. Includes certification, licensure, and training data.

Occupational Characteristics—Variables that define and describe the general characteristics of occupations that may influence occupational requirements.

Occupational Requirements—Defined as a comprehensive set of variables or detailed elements that describe what various occupations require. Includes generalized work activities (GWAs) or dimensions that summarize the kinds of tasks that may be performed within multiple occupations.

Occupation-Specific Information—Comprehensive set of elements that apply to a single occupation or a narrowly defined job family. This domain parallels other domains in that it includes requirements such as knowledge, skills, tasks, and machines, tools, and equipment. Similarly, labor market information defined by industry or occupation is also provided here.

O*NET Reports. When using the O*NET service, employers can generate three different types of reports: Summary, Details, and Custom.

  • The Summary Report provides an overview or snapshot of the selected occupation, focusing on the most important descriptors.
  • The Details Report displays all descriptors for the selected occupation, and, where available, a rating of how important each descriptor is to the occupation.
  • The Custom Report allows the employer to select from 12 different factors to generate tailored reports about occupations. In the case of selected O*NET descriptors (e.g., Skills, Work Values, etc.), the user can further control the report contents by selecting the scale to display and minimum cutoff scores.

It is suggested that you use the O*NET primarily as a reference source: to aid you in assigning specific, accurate job titles; to help you set up a useful job code system; and to provide you with a precise, practical vocabulary for describing the jobs in your firm.

The only time when the use of “canned” job descriptions like those in the O*NET might be justified is when a new company is created and a workforce must be recruited to begin production as soon as possible. Under these circumstances, there is obviously no opportunity to perform job analysis and develop job descriptions. The best approach here would be to use the job descriptions from the O*NET that most nearly describe the jobs to be performed. Recruitment can then proceed and the jobs can be ranked for wage and salary purposes. After the “shakedown period” is completed, a formal job analysis and job description program can be implemented.

Job Summary

The second section of a good job description format is known as the “job summary.” It is a brief narrative picture of the job that highlights its general characteristics. In some ways, the job summary may be compared to the lead statement in a O*NET job description. It is especially valuable to the reader who wants to obtain a quick overview of the job.

The job summary should provide enough information to differentiate the major functions and activities of the job from those of other jobs. Since brevity, accuracy, and objectivity are primary goals in writing the job summary, it is wise to follow these three basic rules:

  1. Start the job summary with an action word (verb).
  2. Explain the job’s requirements; in other words, tell what is done.
  3. If necessary, explain the why or how of the job—its purpose. If it is necessary or helpful to do so, use an example.

The choice of words is a crucial factor here. Although the same rules apply here as elsewhere in the job description, a few of them are worth repeating. The meanings you establish for certain words here in the job summary should be applied consistently throughout all your job descriptions. You should also try to avoid ambiguous words, or those that leave themselves open to a number of possible interpretations. And, finally, stick to simple terms and phrases with which everyone in the company is familiar.

It is often in the job summary section that the phrase “Performs other assignments (or duties) as required” is included. We’ve already discussed the fact that a job description should not limit or restrict the worker, and that it is not meant to be an all-inclusive document. But it is difficult for some employees to understand why this phrase is so important. They may regard it as a convenient excuse for the supervisor who wants them to take on additional duties. One way of overcoming such objections is to ask the employee, “If you saw a fire starting in the supply cabinet, would you try to put it out?” This conveys the message that certain things that must be done are not always included in the job description.

Essential Functions

This section is important. Essential functions are common to all job description formats and represent a summary of those functions associated with the job. The essential functions should represent those duties that must be performed in the job. Often the essential duties section will be followed by a section on “Additional Responsibilities,” which are nonessential or marginal job functions.

When trying to identify the essential job duties and responsibilities, it is vital to focus on the function of the job, rather than the means used to achieve that function. If you can leave the process of achieving the end result open, you will be better prepared to meet the requirement to provide reasonable accommodation to otherwise qualified job applicants and employees.

For example, it might be an essential function for a loading dock job to load four tractor trailers in two-and-a-half hours. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the load must be manually accomplished. Use of hand trucks and forklift trucks might be appropriate, allowing persons who cannot lift heavy loads for long periods of time to be able to do the job.

Here are some of the items that might be included in this section:

  • Regular day-to-day functions.
  • Duties that occur at irregular intervals but that are of a recurring and essential nature.
  • Quantity and quality of supervision received.
  • Quantity and quality of supervision exercised.
  • Amount of human interaction required (in teaching, counseling, coaching, training, etc.); extent of contacts made both inside and outside company.
  • Responsibility for maintaining records.
  • Requirements for following instructions or orders.
  • Responsibility for company funds.
  • Degree of accountability for human and material resources.
  • Office machines or equipment that must be operated.
  • Physical demands.
  • Emotional demands.
  • Other unusual demands.

It is this section of the job description that most nearly corresponds to the standardized descriptions of the O*NET. You may want to refer to it as an example of the types of duties and responsibilities that should be included here. Of course you will want to include many more of the details that characterize this particular job in your particular type of company.

In developing this section, don’t fall into the trap of trying to do a task analysis or breakdown. This section should focus on the required outcome, the requisite product, etc., of the job tasks, rather than on the tasks themselves. Don’t attempt to set down every little detail of the job, unless it is an essential function of the position.

You need only whatever information is necessary to define the level of skill, responsibility, and knowledge required by the job. While writing style will be covered in detail later, here are a few important points to remember when preparing the job duties section:

  • Use brief, to-the-point sentences or phrases.
  • Begin each sentence or phrase with an action verb.
  • Use the present tense.
  • Avoid verbs that do not specifically indicate the action involved. For example, “handles mail” might be better expressed as “sorts mail” or “distributes mail.”

Because of legal considerations, you may want to enlist additional resources to help you define essential job functions to make sure that you are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

These resources include rehabilitation engineers, occupational health nurses, safety managers, job analysts, employment law attorneys, government agencies, and other consultants.

The 80/20 Rule

Probably the most difficult aspect of preparing job descriptions is deciding what functions, duties, and responsibilities to include. It may be hard for someone not intimately familiar with the job to determine which job activities are truly “essential” and which are marginal or incidental.

One rule some employers have followed states that 80 percent of what comes out of a job is the result of 20 percent of what goes into it. In other words, only about 20 percent of what the employee actually does is responsible for achieving 80 percent of the job’s results or objectives. The significant point to remember here is that it is this 20 percent of the job’s content that you are trying to capture in the essential functions of the job description.

There is no substitute for experience when it comes to writing job descriptions. All the advice, rules, guidelines, and suggested formats presented thus far will be meaningless until they are applied. And because jobs themselves vary so widely, it is impossible to provide a step-by-step guide to writing the “ideal” job description. The best approach is to reread and assimilate what has been said up to this point and then tackle the first job, preferably a low-level one that is limited in scope and that lends itself to fairly concrete description.

Accountabilities

Once job objectives have been made clear and responsibilities and duties have been defined, the incumbent is accountable to his or her superior for success or failure in accomplishing these objectives. The section on “accountabilities” not only describes the end results achieved when job duties are performed satisfactorily, but also mentions specific standards for measuring performance. It is therefore particularly useful when preparing for performance appraisal.

The concept of accountability is easily misunderstood. It is important for the manager or supervisor to realize that when authority is delegated, the person to whom it has been delegated is held accountable. The subordinate must consciously accept the authority and exercise it in making decisions and seeing that they are carried out. In lower-level jobs, this section states to whom the incumbent is accountable in carrying out the duties and responsibilities that have already been outlined.

In a sense, job descriptions form the basis for the company’s disciplinary system. When an employee fails to fulfill the responsibilities or to meet the standards specified in the “accountabilities” section of the job description, he or she can be disciplined in a number of ways, including termination of employment.

Job Specifications

Job specifications describe the specific job requirements in terms of “compensable factors.” This factor-by-factor breakdown of the job also gives enough supporting data to select a particular level or degree for each factor. During job evaluation, a point score is assigned and a wage rate or salary level is set accordingly.

Because the job specification is used chiefly as the basis for rating jobs in the job evaluation process, the factors selected depend upon what the company has designated as “compensable factors” for all the jobs in the organization. Most fall under the four broad headings of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. Skill, for example, might be broken down into the education, experience, initiative, and ingenuity required for the job. Effort might be subdivided into the physical and mental effort required.

But what has happened in many firms is that job specifications have become confused with “person (or employee) specifications”—that is, the minimum qualifications that an employee must possess to be considered for hire. The distinction between job specifications, which are used for wage and salary purposes, and person specifications, which are used for employment purposes, is an important one. The sample job and person specifications should help clear up any confusion.

Factor Job Specification Person Specification
Education

Requires high school or equivalent

Must be a high school graduate
Physical Demands* Requires frequwent lifting of weights of 100 pounds or more

Must be strong and weigh at least 150 pounds

Mental Demands* Requires keen vision
Requires mental alertness
Must have 20/20 vision
Must have quick reflexes
Working Conditions Exposed to all kinds of weather Must be in good physical condition

Some job descriptions also include a section dealing specifically with “relationships.” This describes the major relationships between this job and other jobs or positions either within or outside the company. It includes subordinate positions directly supervised by the job being described, as well as contacts with outside vendors, government agencies, etc.

It should be remembered that the basic format outlined in the preceding pages is by no means the best or the most widely used. It is, however, a comprehensive approach that will ensure widespread application. You may wish to incorporate some of these six basic elements in your own job description format while omitting others. Just make sure that you aren’t leaving out a section that might serve a vital purpose.

Job Description Format

Job description formats vary widely, and there is no single “right” format to follow. Length can range from a half page to two or three full pages, depending on the nature of the job and the company’s program goals. Whatever the length, the finished job description should be detailed enough to give a clear picture of the job to someone not familiar with it. The written information should make it possible for the reader to compare the demands and contributions of this job with those of other jobs in the company. It must tell why and how job duties are performed, and it must indicate the job’s scope, complexity, authority, and accountability.

It is just as important to understand what doesn’t belong in a job description as it is to know what information does belong there. Above all, the job description should state the functions as they’re observed and the situation as it exists (assuming the incumbent is performing the job satisfactorily), not the way the job might or should be done theoretically. In other words, opinions or recommendations concerning work methods or procedures have no place in the job description, even though they may be valuable for improving efficiency and productivity.

*Note: Factors such as physical and mental demands must, for purposes of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), be carefully crafted to address only the essential functions of the job. See Chapter 10 for details.

Another important point to remember is that the job description shouldn’t restrict the right of supervisors to assign additional duties not specified in the job description. However, it is important to realize that because of legal considerations, these extra duties and responsibilities should not be considered “essential functions” of the job. To avoid any possible misunderstandings in the future, many companies have a statement similar to the following at the bottom of their job description forms:

“This job description in no way states or implies that these are the only duties to be performed by this employee. He or she will be required to follow any other instructions and to perform any other duties requested by his or her supervisor.”

The following do not belong in a job description:

  • Negative statements, such as “does not answer phone while supervisor is out of the office.”
  • Abbreviations, even if their meanings are well known to the jobholder and the supervisor. Such words should be spelled out, so that anyone who might refer to the job description in the future will know what it is saying.
  • Duties that are to be performed in the future, except in the case of a new job that is just being established. The general rule is that a function must have been performed for a period of three months before being included in a job description, in order for the worker to be familiar enough with it to provide the job analyst with the necessary information.
  • Occasional or temporary duties. If it is necessary for some reason to do so, there should be a notation in the margin opposite these duties stating that they are temporary or occasional. It should be clear whether these are essential and fundamental to the job, or whether they are considered marginal functions.
  • Generalized statements. When such statements are unavoidable, they should be followed by an example to clarify them. It is usually best to use an example given by the jobholder.

Length of Job Descriptions

While no set rule governs the length of job descriptions, brevity and conciseness should be your goal at all times. Most companies try to keep their job descriptions to one page or less. If a job specification section is included, it is usually put on a separate sheet.

Beginning each sentence or phrase in the “Essential Functions” section with an active verb tends to produce a very concise style. Each item in this section (which is usually the longest part of the job description) should be checked and double-checked to make sure that its inclusion is absolutely necessary. Job requirements or duties that are inherent in the position should never be omitted merely for the sake of brevity, but at the same time it is not always necessary to describe every minute detail of the method employed in performing a particular duty.

In some cases, employees have a standardized shortened terminology for a series of operations. The term “make-ready” is a good example. In the printing trade, everyone knows and accepts this concept, and it is therefore not necessary to use a great many words to explain the details of make-ready jobs. The same would hold true for an aircraft mechanic who must perform an aircraft engine “run-up.” This is always performed in the same manner, using a checklist to make sure that the engine is performing within given parameters. It would take many words to describe how the run-up is actually performed. But since aircraft mechanics, their supervisors, and anyone else who might have to use the job description knows what the words “run-up” refer to, it is usually safe to omit further explanations.

An exception to this rule would be when the job being described is a newly created position within the company. If this is the case, there may not be a standardized shortened terminology for the operations performed, or employees may not yet be familiar with such terminology. For example, if printing were a new occupation in the company, the words “make-ready” would have little or no meaning in terms of explaining the difficulty of the work. Under these circumstances it would be better to write out the relevant details.

Supervisors and employees often complain that job descriptions are not complete enough. Their complaints may or may not be justified, but in any case they deserve a hearing. Employees may feel that the job description does not adequately reflect the scope and difficulty of the job, and supervisors may worry that it doesn’t present a complete picture of what the employee is expected to do. Job analysts or personnel staff members responsible for writing the job description should give their suggestions careful consideration, and either incorporate the proposed additions when writing the description or provide the employee or supervisor with an explanation of why the additional information is not appropriate or necessary. Many proposed additions will consist of incidental tasks or elaboration of stated duties and responsibilities. Employees and supervisors should understand why the additional information is not required. Without their understanding and cooperation, the entire program can be undermined.

Designing or Choosing Your Own Format

The variety of available formats for job descriptions is almost endless, and you may decide to ignore them all and design your own. Some companies have different formats for different level jobs. There is nothing wrong with using more than one format as long as it doesn’t make it more difficult to rank or compare similar jobs. In other words, it would certainly be justifiable to use a different format for hourly and salaried employees, but there would be no point in using a particular format for some hourly employees and not others.

Some sample formats are presented below. You will notice that not all of them include all five elements discussed above. Information can be added to or subtracted from these basic formats, depending on your company’s needs. Use them as a reference source in designing a “custom-made” job description format or use them exactly as they appear here. Either way you will be assured of getting off to a good start.

 

Sample Job Description Format

 
   
Job Title: _______________________________ Date:_________________
   
Dept. or Division: _________________________ Status: _______________
   
Reports To: ______________________________ Job Code: ____________
 
Written By: ______________________________________________________
 
Job Summary:
Describes the general purpose of the job, why the job exists.
 
 
 
Job Duties:
Summary of typical duties and responsibilities of the job; may be divided into "essential functions" and "additional responsibilities."
 
 
 
 
Accountabilities:
List the end results that the job should achieve.
 
 
 
Job Specifications:
Lists the job requirements that must be met to perform the job.
 
 
 

Sample Job Description Format

 
   
Job Title: ________________________________________________________
   
Deptartment: ___________________________________________________
   
Accountability:
Title of job to which this jobholder must report.
 
 
Job Summary:
Short statement outlining the purpose of the job.
 
 
 
Duties and Responsibilities:
Series of statements, each outlining a particular duty, task, or responsibility and identifying “what,” “why,” and “how.” All statements should be related to the work to be performed, should identify only the most significant or essential duties, and should convey some idea of the frequency of occurrence.
 
 
 
 
Interaction:
When relevant to the job, a statement describing the relationships and degree of contact with internal and external indivduals or groups.
 
 
 
Prepared By: _______________________________ Date: __________
 
Approved By: ___________________________________ Date: __________
 
 

Sample Job Description Format

 
   
Job Title: ____________________________________ Job Grade: _____
   
Division: ____________________________________ Dept.: __________
   
Job Code: ___________________________________ Date: __________
   
 
Job Summary:
Short statement of the job's purpose.
 
 
 
Work Performed:
Numerical listing of specific duties and responsibilities; may be divided into "essential functions" and "additional responsibilities."
 
 
 
 
Qualifications:
Educational requirements, certifications or licensing standards, experience and basic knowledge requirements.
 
 
 
Written By: _______________________________ Date: __________
 
Approved By: ________________________________ Date: __________
 
 

Sample Job Description Format

 
   
Job Title: _________________________________ Date: __________
   
Department: ______________________________ Incumbent: __________
   
Job Code: ________________________________ Job Grade: __________
   
FLSA Designation: ________________________ Supervisor: __________
   
 
Basic Responsibilities:
Summary of the basic responsibilities or goals of the job, including its scope or limitations.
 
 
 
Specific Duties:
Listing of the specific duties or performances necessary to carry out the above-mentioned responsibilities.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Writing ‘Behavioral’ Job Descriptions

Behavioral job descriptions are an expression of what the individual does in specific and measurable terms, with job objectives stated in the form of behaviors the individual is expected to display. This approach is designed to eliminate the ambiguity that characterizes most traditional job descriptions and renders them useless for many of the purposes we have already discussed.

The advantage of stating job objectives in precise, behavioral terms is that it makes the incumbent’s role or function absolutely clear. An employee’s failure to perform well can often be traced to a disagreement between supervisor and subordinate over what is to be done and what constitutes satisfactory performance. By stating job objectives in specific, quantifiable terms, the job description establishes goals and guides the employees in their efforts to obtain them. These goals also serve as convenient “benchmarks” against which employees can evaluate their own performance. They know exactly what constitutes satisfactory performance and can therefore judge how well they are performing at all times. Needless to say, behavioral job descriptions are an invaluable aid to the company’s regular performance appraisal program.

A closely related approach involves the writing of results-oriented job descriptions. By taking each task or duty and stating it in terms of conditions, standards, skills, and qualifications, ambiguity is eliminated entirely. This information may be arranged in a number of ways, but the same basic approach is taken for each major function. The advantages here include giving employees a clearer idea of the company’s performance expectations and of the minimum qualifications for promotion or reassignment. The disadvantages include the possibility that changes in conditions and standards will necessitate constant rewriting to assure that the job description always is clear about the functions considered essential to the position.

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