Writing A Job Description That Has Teeth

Small forests have been wasted on poorly-written job descriptions. Some are too long and rambling, while some are too short and vague. Neither are effective tools for finding talent and managing performance. A well-written description serves as a tool for evaluating candidates, hiring the best talent, managing performance, and getting the results you want, and need, from your people. Done well, it’s valuable enough to be printed on gold-leaf paper and hung on the wall.
Unfortunately, poorly-written job descriptions are rampant in today’s business world. Yet the difference between a poor job description and a great one can be summed up in just two words: clear expectations.
A great job description defines an employee’s role within the context of a broader management system. It does this by establishing what that system expects and needs from that role to make the whole system work well. It defines what tasks need to be completed, by when, to what standard, and how frequently. The more clear and concise, the better. Job descriptions are not aspirational or abstract. They are clearly defined and measurable expectations of results and behavior.
Poor descriptions typically are either unclear or are not connected to the measurements that truly impact organizational results. Including a bullet point like “must be an entrepreneurial team player” does nothing to describe the work someone is expected to do or how someone is expected to behave. Instead, try “must work collaboratively with the marketing and engineering teams to generate new business models and concepts in order to expand our business services and profit opportunities.” This gives a clearer outline of what will be done and with whom.
Most importantly, a well-written job description becomes the fundamental tool for measuring and monitoring performance. It’s the contract between the employee and the manager (and by extension the company) about what will be expected. A manager and employee should be able to look back at the description and determine if the performance is indeed being met. Without this description, time, energy and talent is wasted arguing over what was expected rather than discussing how to diagnose and solve performance issues collaboratively.
When writing a new job description, or rewriting an existing one, consider these points.
Separate the job description from the job advertisement
Don’t confuse the job description and the job ad. The description is what you’ll use internally to define expectations for the role. Many job descriptions are ineffective because they are trying to “sell” the role rather than serving as a yardstick for performance. Conversely, many ads fail to convert because they are detailing the work, rather than selling the opportunity. Make these separate documents, each with their own purpose, structure and format.
Define the reporting structure
A good job description starts with a clear positioning of the role within the broader management matrix. Who does this role report into? Who reports into this role? What department is it in and where is it located? A good example would be, “Head of Product Development reports into the VP of Product Strategy and leads the user experience design team and copywriting staff.” If the role has dotted line reports or overall organizational responsibilities, those need to be detailed here as well.
List key activities and tasks
Next, the description should list the key tasks and activities that are expected of the role. Generally, this should include about 10-12 items. Don’t bother with general expectations or reasonable norms of professionalism; everyone should be expected to be on time to meetings, work in a professional manner, and communicate effectively. Only list these if there are special expectations such as “speaking publicly to media and the press” or “ensuring the store doors are open during posted store hours.” Establish a reasonableness test by asking yourself, “would it be reasonable to expect a professional walking off the street to know this standard?” If so, don’t bother including it. If you’re not sure, figure out what part would not be reasonable to assume and include that in the description.
Define measurement criteria
Define how success is going to be measured. Generally, this should be 3-5 key measurement criteria for the role. For senior executives, these are usually the KPI (key performance indicators) they are responsible for managing. A Vice President of Sales might be responsible for total dollars sold in a quarter, or perhaps the total revenue. They might also have specific measurement criteria around the size and categories of clients. Define these in specific terms, for example, “$1.3 million in revenue per quarter from Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Northeast US.” Specific numbers might be determined and adjusted on a quarterly basis, but the metric should be stated in the role description.
For mid-level managers and individual contributors, these can be key departmental objectives or work output measures. A manager of customer service might have total calls handled a day, average resolution time, or customer satisfaction ratings measured. A programmer might have features completed in a week, quality of code coverage, or on-time deliveries measured. The point here is to find a few key, objective ways of measuring the work and expectations and to express them in the description clearly and upfront, before their job begins.
Don’t list qualifications, unless they are truly required
I’ve read too many job descriptions that list qualifications that are not enforced. I’ve also consulted many clients whose employees are doing a stellar job despite not having the requirements listed in the description. Leave your “ideal candidate” wish list for the job advertisement. The job description should only have true qualification requirements.
If you’re writing a description for an architect, a lawyer, or a doctor, yes, there are specific educational, accreditation, and licensing requirements. However, unless you truly wouldn’t hire or promote into this role without these requirements, don’t list them. Listing requirements you then don’t enforce undermines the validity and integrity of the description, making it less effective.
This also goes for years or types of experience. Unless you are truly willing to not hire someone without this experience requirement, don’t list it. The fact is, demonstrating ability to perform the work effectively is more important than so-called experience. In fact, research shows that after five years of experience in most fields, there is no additional benefit for additional years. Again, leave your wish list for ideal candidates for the job advertisement.
Disclose any unique characteristics of the job and working environment
If your company does anything that might be out of the ordinary or if there are any unique requirements, make sure to list them. If you require everyone in the company to take improv classes, wear suits in the office, or answer a cell phone 24/7, include this in the job description. Same goes for anything that, if not demonstrated, would be considered a failure to perform as expected. If you don’t list it, you can’t enforce it. Some of these areas can get dicey, so you may want to consult your HR specialist or employment lawyer for guidance on how to address these within the framework of your local employment laws.
Review and revise descriptions on a regular basis
Markets and businesses change, and as a result, what a business needs from it’s people changes. The key is to review these needs and adjust expectations openly and collaboratively with employees on a regular basis. The more transparent and inclusive the process is, the better. I generally recommend to my clients that this happens at least twice a year, or quarterly for high-growth companies. It’s easier to make several smaller changes over the year than to make bigger changes annually.
By engaging employees in this process, it not only builds buy-in to the changes, but it often brings to light new requirements and ideas for how to drive better results. Good employees generally want clarity and goals, and will embrace the process as a way to further engage in their jobs. Those that resist this process are most likely underperformers trying to hold onto outdated expectations.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse on December 15th 2015


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