By Theresa Minton-Eversole
Job descriptions are often dubbed the workhorses of HR documentation — and justifiably so. When thoughtfully crafted, they can be used as building blocks for conducting successful workforce planning, setting salary and grade levels, and meeting compliance requirements. They also play an important role in performance reviews, employee career development and even recruitment.
Often, job descriptions are updated in conjunction with annual performance reviews or as part of the recruiting process to refill a position. However, because many employers these days are asking their workers to take on greater responsibilities as a result of cost constraints brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, now might be an opportune time to review these documents.
“It’s more important than ever to capture all the essential functions you’re asking people to do so your employees can be very clear on what’s expected of them,” says Candace Nicolls, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of people and workplace at Snagajob, a Virginia-based online staffing platform that specializes in matching candidates with hourly wage jobs. “Clearly outlining what someone needs to do in a role [and] setting expectations gives them a tangible measure of success.”
Because the pandemic has forced many companies to alter the way they operate for the foreseeable future, any changes to processes and approaches need to be addressed in job descriptions, according to Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at Indeed.
“It’s also a great time to reassess the skills needed to perform the actual job,” Nicolls adds. “There might be some [skills] that you realize you need more of based on changing business needs, or some that are no longer necessary for the same reason.”
Every job description should be based on the results of a thorough job analysis conducted through a collaborative effort among human resources staff, supervisors and employees. In addition to defining the title, job grade, pay family and salary, job descriptions should describe legitimate minimum qualifications and skills needed to perform the job and should help to justify the position’s exempt status when necessary.
Other specifics regarding the role, such as performance standards and management expectations, scope and limits of authority, hours, job location, and travel requirements, also should be included.
“Where can employees do their jobs? How do we compensate employees who are going to be distributed? How do we keep the same level of engagement with a more distributed workforce? And how do we effectively onboard new employees in this new way of working? These are all questions we are currently grappling with, and developing new approaches to that is here to stay,” Wolfe says.
Solo HR practitioners, in particular, should involve managers in updating job descriptions, performance expectations and competencies, says Jeff Smith, a psychologist and director of Best-Self Academy at 15Five, a management consultancy headquartered in San Francisco. Together, they can ensure that job descriptions are up-to-date and useful for critical HR needs such as compensation benchmarking.
And when creating a job description for a new position, HR professionals, working with managers, should first consider what the business needs are and why the role is critical, Smith notes. “Then, establish a simple process for prioritizing what’s necessary in the job description to achieve the most important outcomes.”
One of the most common mistakes HR professionals make is to use job descriptions as job postings.
“Job descriptions and job postings are two different things and, even in small HR departments, can be treated as such,” Nicolls says. A job posting is what a company uses to sell itself and an open position, she explains, while “a job description is about compliance. It covers the essential functions, qualifications and physical requirements of the job.”
Smith says job descriptions should always include the outcomes the position is responsible for, why the outcomes are important to the company and what the company’s values are.
Stated values give employees “a clear understanding of what they should be focusing on and how it contributes to the company’s overall strategy,” he says. It motivates them to succeed.
Another common mistake HR professionals make: writing job descriptions that are too wordy or overly complicated. This can result in unwieldy laundry lists of responsibilities, skills and tasks that might not be relevant to the key performance outcomes.
“Focus on simplicity and the minimum requirements to achieve the desired outcomes for the role,” Smith says. “For example, don’t require an unnecessary degree or excessive years of experience.”
Although job descriptions and job postings should not be seen as interchangeable, they can work in tandem. For example, well-written job descriptions can be used to create postings that will help strengthen a company’s emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in its recruitment strategies.
Survey research by Indeed reveals that job seekers experiencing one or more barriers to finding a job, such as a gap in work history, frequent job changes or minimal work experience, are particularly susceptible to bias in recruiting practices.
It’s important for employers to look closely at how they reach out to all demographics and provide equal access to available opportunities. One way to build inclusivity is to focus on skills; in addition to hard skills, such as technical expertise, consider soft skills, such as decision-making and problem-solving, that are easily transferable across most jobs or industries. Also, focus on contextual performance, such as the ability to collaborate, and behaviors that can contribute to the company’s culture.
Employers also can promote more-inclusive hiring and level the playing field by trimming their job descriptions and focusing on levels of experience rather than years of experience. Women, for example, are less likely than men to apply for jobs if they don’t have all of the qualifications.
“A long list of must-haves in a job posting can deter many good candidates from applying for the role because they may feel like they cannot meet every qualification listed,” Wolfe says.
While job descriptions are about functions, job postings are full of descriptors, Smith says. “There are several great online tools that [can] help remove gendered or noninclusive language from your job postings, which can ensure you’re attracting a diverse applicant pool.”
Theresa Minton-Eversole is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.