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Job descriptions: the foundation of human resources

August 14, 2015
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Everyone knows a company must have job descriptions to have an organized human resources function. Unfortunately, the thinking often stops at this point, while the action of creating a binder of job descriptions swings into high gear. 

Even if a collection of job descriptions exists, a new H.R. leader may feel the need to do a review and perhaps bring things up to speed with the current organization profile. All this effort will take a lot of time and resources. Sometimes it is rather questionable if the organization is not utilizing the information effectively.

To gauge the effectiveness, it becomes important to define how the job descriptions are going to be used. The versatility of this tool is something that needs to be examined. It also becomes a critical factor in how they are constructed.

In essence, the description should tell the reader the work expected and scope of the job, along with the priorities of the various responsibilities. Furthermore, it should indicate skills and experience required to do the job effectively. Regulations also will suggest defining the work environment from a physical perspective.

Getting all the pieces into a single useful document can be a challenge.

The elements of the job description that are included to meet various specifications — such as dealing with workers compensation matters or addressing hiring practices covered by ADA — are important, but in my opinion they are secondary to the prime intent of the document.

That intent is to use the description as a guide that: helps the manager clarify what work needs to be accomplished; lists what skills are required to do the job effectively, helps select the right person to accomplish the work; and, finally, ensures they are paid properly.

Construction of a job description

Examining the points above, it might appear this is clearly an employment document, so once you have a person in the job, the role of the job description is finished. This is not the case.

But before moving on to its uses, perhaps a review of the job description construction may be beneficial.

1) Always include the date of activation, and also perhaps the dates the document is reviewed or updated.

2) The title is important and should be part of an organized system of titles, as this will lend some understanding to where the job fits in the organization and hierarchy. Direct reporting relationships and sometimes technical reporting relationships help with understanding the job and its scope.

3) Usually, an overview of the position’s responsibility that describes what is expected of the position allows people to know in general what the role is about without getting lost in the specifics. The umbrella statement can also be beneficial in defining the scope and what actions or detailed matters should be assigned to the position.

4) Once the scope of the position is defined, providing statements that “flesh out” the expected work will put meat on its bones. However, these statements should be organized by relative importance or some other type of priority. Although not always the most important factor, where large amounts of time are spent can be a priority. Again, putting the description in general terms is better than a laundry list of 20 to 25 tasks; a general description is more stable, whereas a task list may have a short-term focus. The number of these statements should usually be no more than half a dozen. A generalized statement saying new tasks or responsibilities may be added from time to time is a good idea.

Now that the work has been defined, it may be a good idea to focus on a few statements that describe the working conditions, both environmental and physical, or special exposures, i.e. working in hazardous zones or on-call 24-7, high travel, etc.

Finally, there should be a list of the skills, knowledge and experience required to do the job, and perhaps some alternatives to specifics, such as five extra years of experience without the expected college degree.

Not a one-time event

In a well-managed operation, the job description should become a tool that is consulted on a somewhat regular basis. It should be used at least annually as part of the performance assessment process. It should become the starting point against which the individual is evaluated.

One practice I recommend is to have the individual review the document before the discussion with the supervisor; a key review step is looking at what is not being done and what has been added that isn’t covered by the description. It’s not fair to the employee to rate them on things that are outside the expected, or if the supervisor has redirected their efforts for an extended period of time.

This type of review also may help recognize when the job has changed and is in need of re-evaluation and maybe even a promotion or downgrade.

This review is also a great opportunity for improved communication between the employee and the supervisor. In dynamic organizations, the amount of change is often substantial. Making sure everyone knows the new expectations and training that may be required to accomplish the tasks should be done in a timely fashion.

In summary, the job description can be used for performance management, strategic planning and succession planning, as well as pay adjustment decisions and training — certainly more than just an employment tool.

Legal overtones

Sometimes employees in certain positions are not doing an effective job. This can be a subjective decision, but often it can be an objective assessment — especially if the employer can hold up the job description and make a detailed analysis against defined job responsibility statements. 

In terminations and demotions, the more the process is based on objective practice, the less likely the employer can be challenged for making a wrong decision. A key practice in this process is to assure the job description is reviewed regularly, and the employee understands the expectations.

A strong foundation requires work

H.R. building blocks only work if they are put in place properly and then are maintained on a regular basis. This also involves educating employees and managers on their care and use. If the employer doesn’t take care in doing so, the foundation tools can undermine the various efforts to build a strong employee culture and an effective performance team.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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