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Practical Job Descriptions

Should our company use job descriptions? How long should they be, and what information should they contain? Do they really serve a useful purpose?

We get those questions all the time, and the answer is always the same: Yes, employers should use lean, practical job descriptions that accurately reflect essential job duties because they serve an important, if not necessary, function in virtually every significant employment decision you will make!

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Defining essential job functions
Most employers use some form of job description, but many are cumbersome documents that have little practical value because they’re long, complicated, and outdated. Others are too simplistic and lack sufficient detail. While you aren’t legally required to maintain job descriptions for each and every job, it’s in your best interest to do so since job descriptions are one of the most effective tools to establish which job functions are essential. And knowing which job functions are essential is critically important to many employment decisions you make on a daily basis.

For example, knowing which duties are essential and which aren’t helps you make appropriate decisions when you’re engaging in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation. Likewise, being able to adequately explore an applicant’s ability and willingness to satisfy essential job functions may help you avoid hiring discrimination claims.

Finally, an executive job description that details the regular supervision of two or more other employees, establishes that “management” is the primary duty of the position, and describes the authority to hire, fire, promote, or make assignments is a useful tool in convincing a court that a disgruntled former manager was properly classified as exempt from overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) executive exemption.

But a well-written job description can do so much more. It can help you make and defend employment decisions related to:

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Other benefits
When you’re recruiting, it’s important to communicate to applicants as early as possible the conduct, attendance, and performance expectations you have. You probably do a good job of that during employment interviews. But if you have clear, concise job descriptions, you can begin to communicate those expectations even earlier by attaching them to employment applications. The job description can then be used during the interview process to explore an applicant’s suitability for the job. Making good hiring decisions is one of the best ways to avoid employee problems.

Of course, job duties can change over time for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we strongly recommend that job descriptions be updated regularly. Importantly, a job description must match the reality of the job, not what management thinks the job entails or the lofty standards management would like it to entail. We have found that the best way to accomplish that is to form joint management-employee teams who are charged with reviewing existing job descriptions and making appropriate changes. Involving a representative sample of employees who perform the actual duties (as well as labor union representatives if applicable) in the process results in an overall better product and helps ensure employee commitment.

When a job description considers how much of each task must be done and how well it should be done, it can directly support performance evaluations. The strongest and fairest evaluations are based on how well an employee performs duties outlined in a job description. When the time comes to formally evaluate employees, you’ll find that the ability to compare actual performance against stated expectations is enhanced by the fact that the employees have contributed to the setting of those expectations.

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What should I include in job descriptions?
A job description need not account for every task that might ever be done. Here are the most critical components of a good job description.

Heading information. This should include job title, pay grade or range, reporting relationship (by position, not individual), hours or shifts, and the likelihood of overtime or weekend work.

Summary objective of the job. List the general responsibilities and descriptions of key tasks and their purpose, relationships with customers, coworkers, and others, and the results expected of incumbent employees.

Qualifications. State the education, experience, training, and technical skills necessary for entry into this job.

Special demands. This should include any extraordinary conditions applicable to the job (for example, heavy lifting, exposure to temperature extremes, prolonged standing, or travel).

Job duties and responsibilities. Only two features of job responsibility are important: identifying tasks that comprise about 90 to 95 percent of the work done and listing tasks in order of the time consumed (or, sometimes, in order of importance). The first task listed should be the most important or time-consuming one, and so on. You can cover 90 to 95 percent or more of most tasks and responsibilities in a few statements. It’s more important to list what must be performed and accomplished than how, if there is more than one way to do it. Being too specific on how to accomplish a duty could lead to ADA issues when an employee asks for an accommodation.

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Bottom line
Creating and maintaining job descriptions isn’t difficult. In fact, we’ve seen businesses use the development of job descriptions as a means of opening new lines of communication with employees. Employees want to be heard, and the development of job descriptions is a perfect opportunity to increase employee involvement. If you approach the process correctly, it can even be fun! The reward for management is a useful tool that helps guide many critical employment decisions and serves as an important consideration in the defense of administrative actions and lawsuits.