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How to Write All-Encompassing Job Descriptions for Any Position

Job descriptions usually leave out discussions of the independent authority that can be exercised by the jobholder. What kinds of decisions can the incumbent make without navigating through the checks and balances of higher authorities and supervisors?

Do you know what mistakes to look out for in writing your next job description? Make sure you know what they are—find out more here.

Job descriptions usually leave out discussions of the independent authority that can be exercised by the jobholder. What kinds of decisions can the incumbent make without navigating through the checks and balances of higher authorities and supervisors? Who must be consulted in big decision-making processes? Whose advice must be sought prior to important decision making? Can certain decisions be made independently or must they be a product of group effort? For example, will the employee be permitted to fire a subordinate without input from others? Will an employee be permitted to spend $5,000 on a piece of equipment without input from others? Will an employee’s ability to exercise independent judgment be a product of experience or past performance? These kinds of issues should be and can be importantly clarified in the job description.

Duties are hidden in a narrative format.

In today's organizations the narrative-type job description has little place. These job descriptions camouflage the work involved. Precise enumeration of duties is far superior. Listing duty statements shows how the work is divided up. It shows the distinctive components of the work. It clearly helps one detect the volume and variety of work activities. The narrative approach though, tends to provide better conceptual integration of the various parts of the job, and does more to hinder the real study and analysis of the job's structure and design. The narrative approach does not give each job dimension clear identity. The best way is to sum up the entire job with a general-function paragraph near the beginning of the document, but to be sure to avoid narratives for sub-function descriptions.

Functional authority and staff authority linkages are unclear.

Job descriptions usually indicate superior and subordinate line positions relative to a given job, but seldom clearly define other key administrative links--those of a functional or staff authority nature. In organizations, employees do receive or give orders to people outside the chain of command. This is often done without formal definition or authorization. All is well as long as the employees involved are highly experienced people who have learned, and accepted, the system. But with high turnover in an organization--new people frequently starting up on the job--failure to delineate functional and staff authority connections can lead to months, if not years, of potential conflict, frustration, and employee abuse.

No job family or career ladder data.

It is most useful if employees understand, up front, how their jobs fit in to the total system in terms of providing opportunities for job change and advancement. What other jobs are similar, require similar skills, or require development of the same base skills learned for the job being described? Indicating job families and career tracks gives workers a fuller perspective of their work (thus helping them to better understand their places in the organization), helps workers prepare for other positions, and shows workers with whom they ought to consult for advice about their present jobs. It is vital information, legitimately placed in the job description because it shows the design of the larger system of which a particular position is a part.

Not dated and signed by the proper people.

As with any other valuable document, when you pull it from the file drawer you want to know when it was prepared and who was responsible for its preparation and/or who approved it. No different with job descriptions; but many on-file job descriptions can be found with no preparation date, no indication of when it was last reviewed or revised, and no signatures of the incumbent, the supervisor, or the preparer of the job description. You look at it and wonder if it was prepared last year or five years ago, and if it was ever authorized by anyone. There can be no excuse for lack of dates and signatures in a job description.

Excessive redundancy and non-job design data overload.

Some job descriptions confuse the design of the work by saying the same thing, or almost the same thing, in different ways in different task statements. This confuses the description design and makes the job appear far more complex than it is or needs to be. Care must be taken to write duty statements that are mutually exclusive or non-overlapping. A further common problem is the tendency of some job description preparers to build too much data into the job description. Comprehensiveness is essential and sufficient detail is important, but any data such as descriptions of methods, work objectives, or discussion of informal roles should be left for other documents. Take care to not abuse the job description by including excessive non-job design data.

No recognition of unplanned work.

Much of the typical employee's job will involve unplanned, spur-of-the-moment assignments, self-initiatives, and so on. Random, unpredictable demands can occupy a major portion of one's time on management-type jobs. The typical job description does not recognize this category of activity. To get a clear sense of the design of the work, this category should be incorporated into the job description. Not doing this means the job description will be highly misleading as an accurate descriptor of the job's design.

Use of The Document

Even well-written job descriptions are highly underutilized and misused in practice. There are numerous reasons for this, all of which can be constructively addressed and minimized if not eliminated. The following point to common specific problems in the use (or non-use) of job descriptions:

Not used because of a fundamental lack of understanding about how to use them.

Perhaps the most widespread problem with the usage of job descriptions is that managers do not know how, or for what purposes, to use them. Most managers have never been trained on how to interpret job descriptions, let alone on how to prepare them and for what to use them. Few managers can give you more than six or eight uses for job descriptions--far short of its range of uses. If managers are to put this powerful document to work, they must receive some training—adequate training that covers how to gather data for job descriptions and how to prepare them for their proper use. Without this, the potential utility of job descriptions will never be fully realized.

Not used because they are perceived as an inflexible contract.

Many managers and subordinates see job descriptions as a work contract spelling out exactly what the worker will do--no more, and no less. Managers see job descriptions, therefore, as imposing a constraint on how the incumbent’s time will be used. They see job descriptions as rigid, thereby interfering with the frequent need to adapt jobs to different workers and to changing conditions. Workers use them as an excuse not to change or adapt. The job description thus can contribute to a degree of resistance to change in an incumbent.

See the following articles for more information: