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Writing Effective Job Descriptions

A job description describes the major areas of an employee's job or position. A good job description begins with a careful analysis of the important facts about the job -- such as the individual tasks involved, the methods used to complete the tasks, the purpose and responsibilities of the job, the relationship of the job to other jobs, and the qualifications needed for the job.

It's important to make a job description practical by keeping it dynamic, functional, current, and legal. A well-written, practical job description will help you avoid hearing a refusal to carry out a relevant assignment because "it isn't in my job description," while helping you hire the right people.

This article focuses on how to write an effective job description, whether it's for a job listing or to help define an existing employee's job duties and expectations. See FindLaw's extensive The Hiring Process section for additional articles on this topic.

Make Sure Your Job Description is Flexible

Realistically speaking, many jobs are subject to change, due either to personal growth, organizational development and/or the evolution of new technologies. Flexible job descriptions will encourage your employees to grow within their positions and learn how to make larger contributions to your company. For example: Is your office manager stuck "routinely ordering office supplies for the company and keeping the storage closet well stocked," or is she/he "developing and implementing a system of ordering office supplies that promotes cost savings and efficiency within the organization?"

When writing a job description, keep in mind that the job description will serve as a major basis for outlining job training or conducting future job evaluations. And remember, job descriptions may change with time.

Main Components of a Job Description

The first component of any job description is the title. Job titles vary widely from one employer to the next, although certain job titles suggest a certain level within the company (such as "Vice President") or require certain certifications.

The title is closely followed by the main objective or overall purpose statement. Generally, this is a summary designed to orient the reader to the general nature, level, purpose, and objective of the job. The summary should describe the broad function and scope of the position and be no longer than three to four sentences.

Every job description must also include a list of principal duties, continuing responsibilities, and accountability of the occupant of the position. The list should contain each and every essential job duty or responsibility that is critical to the successful performance of the job, beginning with the most important functional and relational responsibilities and continuing down in order of significance. Each duty or responsibility that comprises at least 5 percent of the incumbent's time should be included in the list.

Another important element is a description of the relationships and roles the occupant of the position holds within the company, including any supervisory positions, subordinating roles, and other working relationships. For instance, it may state that you will be managing employees or that you will report to a certain individual.

Job Descriptions for Recruiting Purposes

If you are in the process of recruiting an employee, you need to clearly state the job specifications, standards, and requirements. These are generally the minimum qualifications needed to perform the essential functions of the job, such as education, experience, knowledge, and skills. Any critical skills and expertise needed for the job also should be included.

A receptionist -- for example -- might need to possess: (1.) a professional and courteous telephone manner; (2.) legible hand-writing if messages are to be taken; (3.) the ability to handle a multiple-lined phone system for a number of staff members; and (4.) the patience and endurance to sit behind a desk all day.

Other details that should be in a job description used for recruiting purposes include the following:

  • Job Location: Where the work will be performed.
  • Equipment to be used in the performance of the job: For example, does your company's computers run in a Apple MacIntosh or PC Windows environment?
  • Collective Bargaining Agreements: agreements and terms that relate to job functions, if applicable, such as when your company's employees are members of a union.
  • Non-Essential Functions: functions which are not essential to the position or any marginal tasks performed by the incumbent of the position.
  • Salary Range: range of pay for the position. Keep each statement in the job description crisp and clear.
  • Structure your sentences in classic verb/object and explanatory phrases: Since the occupant of the job is your sentences' implied subject, it may be eliminated. For example, a sentence pertaining to the description of a receptionist position might read: "Greets office visitors and personnel in a friendly and sincere manner." Omit any unnecessary articles such as "a", "an", "the" or other words for an easy to understand, to the point description.
  • Use un-biased terminology: For example, use the "he/she" approach or construct sentences in such as way that gender pronouns are not required.
  • Avoid using words which are subject to differing interpretations: Try not to use words such as "frequently," "some," "complex," "occasional," and "several."

A carefully and thoughtfully crafted job description can help you recruit the right people and help your employees understand the duties and expectations of their job. If you need legal assistance with your job descriptions, contact an employment law attorney licensed in your state.

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