A job description is one document within human resources and recruitment that is often misunderstood. Whenever the purpose and design of a tool are missed, its application effectively becomes useless. Some regard it synonymously with a job posting or offer letter, which is not at all the case. More often, it’s not updated regularly or used consistently – which can create problems for organizations in the long run.

Job descriptions are an indispensable tool that can be used in a variety of ways within your organization. A clear, well-written job description can help to track and benchmark employee performance and success, act as a framework for career development, and reveal gaps within roles and responsibilities that can help an organization operate more effectively, among several other advantages.

Are you creating job descriptions correctly? Is your organization using them to their full potential? In this blog, we explain what exactly a job description is, why so many are useless, how it should be used, and how to craft a highly effective one.

What is a Job Description?

If you asked a random sampling of people who either are or have been employed for the definition of a job description, you’ll likely get a fairly similar response. While there are sure to be exceptions, the most common answer is some variation of “a summary of a job”. But a job description is much more complex and does so much more than that.

A useful job description aligns with organizational structure, talent selections, performance management, and training and development. It’s a document that clearly states essential job requirements, duties, and responsibilities as well as the skills required to perform a specific role.

Written effectively, a job description will also outline how success is measured in the role, so it can be used for performance evaluations and career development. This means that job descriptions can’t be a “set it and forget it” document within your organization. They should be reviewed at least annually so that you can better understand and evolve the job description so that it aligns with the needs of your organization. When used correctly, a job description allows you to see, through a systems-thinking approach, where there may be gaps in your organization so you can hire intentionally.

It’s important to note that job descriptions are their own, unique documents. They are not job postings or job offers, despite commonly being used as such. (We’ll explain why this is a problem in a moment.) These useful documents can, and should, inform many different aspects of your talent strategy solutions. They are an outline of the work that’s being done and how the work can continue.

Why Are Most Job Descriptions Useless?

The typical job description is useless today because there is confusion about what a job description is and ambivalence about the value they provide. The confusion and vague understanding naturally carries over when crafting a job description leading to some common mistakes. Here are the biggest problems.

1. They are used in ways they weren’t intended

Too many organizations attempt to use job descriptions in applications they weren’t designed for. As an example, hiring managers might use a job description as a job posting. A job description does have multiple uses and a posting might use some of the information from a job description, but the description itself is not a front-facing document. They are meant to be used “behind the scenes” because they often contain a multitude of information meant for employees and other members of your organization, not job candidates.

The ease and convenience of using a job description for a job posting are tempting because it does technically have all the intended skills and requirements that an ideal candidate should have. However, you may end up excluding great candidates if they don’t align exactly with every aspect of the job description. It describes a role, not a person — which means you may be limiting your flexibility when it comes to candidates. Lou Adler points out that using job descriptions as a hiring tool will actually prevent you from making good hires.

Job descriptions aren’t meant to do everything and they shouldn’t be used as such.

2. They aren’t specific or targeted enough

Even if you didn’t force your job description to perform in an area outside the intended scope of work, a hastily written job description can render your document just as useless. Without intent and purpose, it can’t be an effective tool. Avoid the fallacy that since a job description should be an evolving document a bare-bones description or something close enough will work.

This also means that simply copying and pasting information from one document to the next isn’t effective either. Your job description will be unique to your organization and each specific role. Make sure you take the time to reflect that in the writing. Using templates is a great place to start but you should revise and update them as needed for your unique needs. Each job description has a specific use and therefore needs to be crafted as accurately as possible from the start. Your description should communicate both general and specific information about the role (and your organization). Be descriptive, so that when someone reads the document they can fully understand the objectives of the role and can even imagine the day-to-day duties.

Without taking time to understand the specific role and what you need someone in this position to accomplish, you won’t have a sense of how to evolve the role or develop an employee’s career.

3. The right team members aren’t involved

Along with purpose and intentional design, the final cause of useless job descriptions is writing them without input from the key areas they are intended to assist. Managers will provide an outline of what they need someone in the role to accomplish. Employees already in the role may provide the most detail on the specific responsibilities, tools, and knowledge required. Similarly, HR sets the format and provides consistency with other job descriptions across your organization.

When job descriptions are written in a vacuum, it’s impossible to know if the information will be useful to the teams and employees that need them. And without doing your due diligence, you will miss important aspects of the position. By including the team in the writing process, you can better align HR, management, and employees on what kind of work is being done, the level of performance, and whether there are critical gaps that need to be filled.

How to effectively (and accurately) use a job description

It’s a bit ironic that the top mistake when using something that can help everyone in an organization is poor or misguided use. While a job description is a versatile tool, there are specific applications that will provide the most value and usefulness.

1. Define specific roles and responsibilities

Defining something helps you understand it. In the context of employment, job descriptions provide individuals and organizations with the ability to delineate different positions by specifying what is done (requirements), by whom (title), and how they do it (responsibilities).

2. Establish performance metrics

Building on your definition, a job description provides a method of measuring the effectiveness and proficiency of someone in that position. Whether you choose to set levels of proficiency, minimum expectations, or criteria for advancement, this document establishes benchmarks for managing performance and tracking growth.

3. Clarify career progression

When you are clear about what is being done and how outcomes are measured, job descriptions also help organizations clarify the “what’s next” question. They identify what an employee would need to learn or take on in order to advance to another position. Mapping out career growth in turn gives clarity to your compensation structure and where salary ranges should lie in relation.

When various roles, position levels, and paths are clearly documented, it allows you to see a wider perspective and history of success within your organization. Growth-minded organizations use job descriptions to help them plan both organizational and employee success.

4. Identify organizational gaps and growth opportunities

Organizational charts are great for visually understanding how work flows through your business and how areas are connected. Job descriptions add a layer of detail that can identify gaps and overlaps in your organization. They can be used to assess whether positions need to be split or consolidated based on requirements. Not to mention, a great tool to aid in developing succession plans and identifying when to bring on more talent.

5. Guide the hiring process

We established that a job description shouldn’t perform dual roles as a job posting or job offer, however, it should provide the framework for your recruiting and hiring process. A well-written job description compiles all of the skills and knowledge required to be successful in a role. As such, it brings alignment on what a perfect-fit hire would look like and includes details that might help to entice candidates. Use this information when establishing your search strategy, developing your candidate scorecard, crafting job postings, and evaluating candidates.

Finally, job descriptions can assist employers in making reasonable accommodations, help justify exempt status and support the organization and its organizational structure.

HR, in partnership with the executive team, can refer back to the job description to support any legal or medical claims in regard to FMLA, Disability and ADA requirements, discrimination, and more.

In light of these uses, it should be clear why job descriptions should be treated as living documents that need to be reviewed and updated regularly. However, make sure you are also saving historical versions, to track changes and year-over-year growth.

How should a job description NOT be used?

Equally as important as knowing how to use a job description, is knowing how not to use it to avoid the mistakes we pointed out.

1. As a job posting

This is our number one recommendation. Do not use your job description as a job posting. Do not just copy and paste the information onto your LinkedIn posting or job board, as this is the fastest way to lose a candidate. Job descriptions have way more information than a candidate needs to know when searching for positions and worse, have the potential to turn off potentially great candidates who don’t fit all the specific criteria.

2. As a static document

Job descriptions are not a “set it and forget it” kind of document. They should be consistently reviewed and evaluated, at least yearly, to be effective. They should evolve the role as the organization (and its needs) evolve.

3. A creative writing tool

Job descriptions should contain accurate information about the scope of the role and expectations. This isn’t really the place to get creative, so use meaningful and widely understood language, and more particularly, job titles to avoid confusion. It’s also important to update descriptions to align with frequently used language and terms within the organization.

4. As a suggestion

Job descriptions are important and highly useful tools, but only when they are used with intention and used consistently. They are not a suggestion. They should not only be updated regularly but used across all departments with consistent formatting across your organization. It’s also important to include HR whenever a job description is updated so it’s clearly understood what needs to change and how it might impact other facets of the organization.

What you Need to Create a Useful Job Description

A job description will be packed with pertinent information. Therefore it needs to be precise, accurate, honest, and descriptive. There are several different templates that could work for your organization, but the format of your job description will be highly dependent on your specific needs. Most important is to ensure it is categorized and organized in a way that makes it highly functional.

Must-have components

Every job description needs to include the:

  • Position title,
  • Pay grade/range
  • Reporting relationship
  • Hours/shifts, including the likelihood of overtime or weekend work
  • Summary objective of the job

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

From a legal perspective, a lack of clarity about pay or reasons for employment decisions is the basis for many lawsuits. A clearly written, up-to-date job description can help avoid these challenges. It is essential that a job description include these legal elements:

  • ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) – Defining the essential functions of the position will provide a better avenue for evaluating accommodation requests.

  • FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) – Classification of exempt or nonexempt ensures you have defined the position and can comply accordingly.

  • EPA (Equal Pay Act of 1963) - Job descriptions clarify which jobs are similar and are entitled to similar pay. Additionally, what jobs differ in pay because of required skills, knowledge, or responsibilities.

  • Title VII (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) – Having clearly defined job requirements, the job description will help you to justify your employment decisions and reduce exposure to litigation.

  • OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) – The job description will list information about working conditions. Including dangerous work environments and special equipment used. This alerts candidates if a position is hazardous and helps ensure compliance with safety rules.

Other important things to include in a job description:

  • Date – The date when the job description was created or last reviewed to confirm they are reviewed regularly.

  • Classification – Exempt or nonexempt under the FLSA.

  • Essential Duties – What tasks are performed and the required functions of the job.

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

  • Competency – State the knowledge, skills, and abilities required or preferred for the job.

  • Work Environment – Any factors that affect the candidate’s working conditions. This can include noise, temperature, etc.

  • Physical Demands – Physical requirements such as standing, driving, and lifting.

  • Travel – The expected amount of time spent traveling and what type, local, overnight.

  • Equal Employer Opportunity statement

  • Other Duties – Job postings do not contain a comprehensive list of required duties and responsibilities, so all of that information needs a place in the job description. As well as new activities or changes that may be assigned at any time.

A job description is also where you can restate your employee value proposition (EVP), confirming your organization as an engaging, compelling place to work. Describe what benefits are offered, your company culture, and how the role contributes to the company’s growth.

The Takeaway

Job descriptions are an invaluable tool, but too often they are relegated to the back burner, aren’t updated regularly, or are simply used incorrectly rendering them useless. Even worse, common mistakes could negatively impact your hiring and recruitment efforts. When you devote the time to craft a well-written job description you lay the foundation for career development, better performance management, benchmark success, and aligning hiring goals with organizational growth.

a guide to the recruitment process