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Writing Job Descriptions

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"Long copy is skimmed, short copy is read."

Job descriptions must be skillfully crafted before the hiring process can begin. Is this easier said than done? Not if a few basic rules are followed.

Keep the Job Description Brief

To many people, clear, detailed writing translates into the need to create longer documents. More words, they feel, will convey more useful information. In fact, the opposite is true. Although it may be harder to get across a point with fewer words than with many, the result is much more effective when accomplished. A good job description will have been written, edited, rewritten, edited again, and then again until it spells out in clear, concise language what the job really demands.

I believe that a job specification should fit comfortably on one page. If it runs longer than that, it's probably too specific. An effective job description should include
  • All the basic skills required, but are limited to those that are truly necessary to get the job done. Sometimes forgotten are "soft skills," such as ability to communicate verbally or in writing, to interact closely as a team player, or to demonstrate supervisory skills over a fluctuating number of specialists.

  • A clear picture of what is expected in the way of deadlines, regularly scheduled written and verbal progress reports, expense tracking, company hours (including the need to extend them in times of increased workload), and other requirements that are better explained early in the hiring process, rather than later

  • The name and title of the person to whom the employee will report, and others with whom the person will closely interact

  • Salary and benefits. If at all possible, pay a little more than market. If there is a lot of turnover at your company, consider paying a lot more. As may happen in small firms, the hiring person sometimes feels as though salaries come directly out of his or her own pocket, resulting in a pattern of salary "lowballing." Getting what you pay for has particular applicability to hiring and staffing. Your objective is to get the best possible person for the job, and the best people know they're good and deserve a decent salary for their skills.
Describe the Job Accurately

Like all good writing, it's the thinking behind it that counts. The most skilled writer of job descriptions will fail if the thought behind what he or she is writing--the analyses of the job itself--is faulty. Too many job descriptions call for education, skills, and experience far beyond what the job requires.

Frequently, an unrealistic salary accompanies these inflated job descriptions. This represents the biggest problem human resources professionals have in matching candidates to jobs. A company can't insist that an individual have a Ph.D., yet offer a salary more appropriate for a high school graduate. This is not to say that all candidates with the stipulated requisites would reject the offer. Even though the employer might succeed in hiring a person with the ballooned credentials, the employer has laid the groundwork for rapid turnover: the revolving door.

On the other side of the coin, there are employers who minimize job specs in order to hire someone at a low salary, but then crank up demands once the employee starts working. The results? There goes that revolving door again. Still other employers make a position sound as though it involves considerable managerial responsibility, when in reality it is a mundane, boring job with little or no managing involved.

A good job description begins with honesty. "Fudging" a job description to attract candidates who are disinterested is to invite disaster. Reality soon sets in, and the employee recognizes the deception. Misleading job descriptions are akin to candidates landing jobs based on fraudulent resumes. They may find the jobs but their inadequacies soon surface.

Ironically, my associates and I have known employers who go to excess in downplaying the appeal of a given job and the potential for growth. Because we have had a long-term relationship with many of them, we know that the position is better than indicated in the job description and that the company has a good track record of promoting from within. Getting that across to a good candidate who returns from an interview with a negative view of the company and job isn't always easy.

Don't Rely on Departing Employees to Write the New Job Description

You can ask the departing employee to prepare a detailed outline of what he or she did on the job. But also look at this employee's application blank and resume at the time of employment. There's a strong possibility that this individual did not have experience in everything that he or she has been doing at the present time--other than basic skills and training that would ordinarily be required. For example, a controller would ordinarily be an accomplished accountant and have managerial experience. This person, if capable, should be able to learn about the industry and the office and accounting systems. I purposely oversimplified this to make it clear that almost everyone who comes in as a new employee, if competent, is able to use their skills and their training to handle the position effectively. If you're convinced that the candidate is willing to do the job, and has the ability, everything else becomes much less important.

The employee who is quitting tends to overcomplicate the requirements, and consciously or unconsciously may not be looking to hire the best person for the job for two reasons:
  1. Ego. The tendency of wanting to be missed because she was the best controller the company ever had.

  2. Hedging. If the new and "better" job doesn't work out, she'd like to be able to re-apply for her old job.
Unless you have an excellent reason to let the departing person participate in creating the job specifications and conducting interviews, don't do it. It may be the easy way out, but that shouldn't be your goal.

Modify the Job Description if Necessary

Finally, we urge employers not to consider job descriptions as set in stone. They will have lasting value if properly conceived and drafted, but they should be flexible enough so that aspects of them can be altered if the right person comes along. A sterling prospect, deficient in a single area called for in a job description, should not be overlooked. Is that aspect of the job really as important as stated in the description? If so, can the deficiency be corrected through company training or company-sponsored education?

At Robert Half International, we've seen too many otherwise superb matches between candidate and employer lost as a result of undue rigidity on the employer's part. We're not advocating a lowering of standards, but if, in your judgment, a candidate has the ability and willingness to do the job, and this person should be seriously considered for the position.
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