Dell Small Business 360 - Writing good job descriptions

Dell Small Business 360 - Writing good job descriptions

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Picture Perfect — Writing job descriptions that reflect your vision for your company

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Job descriptions may be a hassle to write, but drafting a good one might be the most important things that you do for your company. That's because a good job description is more than just a static piece of paper to keep on file for auditing purposes or compliance with government requirements like the Americans With Disabilities Act.

It can be a blueprint for hiring, a compass for setting goals for your business, a defense against overtime lawsuits and a benchmark for evaluations, pay increases and bonuses. It can also serve as a bridge between you and your employees, clarifying what you expect from them so they don't misunderstand your intentions, poach into someone else's territory or lose track of the overall goals of the business.

The biggest mistake that small-business owners make with job descriptions is not writing them incorrectly, but not keeping them up-to-date, says Jason Kovac of World at Work, an association that studies human resource issues.

"A job description needs to be a living document, not the type of thing that you save on your computer desktop and leave it there to look at in five to 10 years," Kovac says. Here are some of his suggestions for good job descriptions:

Keep it clear, concise and accurate. Make sure that the tasks, duties and responsibilities outlined in the job description mirror what the employee will actually do and reflect what you expect from that person. If you are ever audited, the government will take note of any discrepancies in this area. To comply with ADA requirements, be sure to specify any physical, ergonomic or environmental aspects of the job. Keep the summary section of the position to a brief, four-sentence overview that describes the purpose of the job and how it fits into the organization and don't rehash information that will be included in the tasks and duties section. Make sure that any qualifications, credentials or attributes that you establish for the position relate to performance. And, when listing tasks and duties, start with action verbs and write in the present tense.

Prioritize. A well-written job description isn't just a laundry list of necessary requirements for a position -- it has a sense of priorities. The first few tasks listed should be the most important and time-consuming ones, and the rest should follow from there. If you've classified the employee as exempt, ranking duties is crucial to show that the employee spends the majority of his time on work requiring independent judgment. Often, employers will use the phrase "and other duties as necessary or required," as a catch-all for functions that a company is responsible for that take up less than 5 percent of an employee's time and effort. It's fine to use this phrase -- as long as you don't rely on it as an exempt status qualifier. If the "other duties" consume more than 5 percent of the employee's time, it needs a separate listing. Otherwise, your employee might grow resentful -- and you might find yourself in legal trouble.

Allow for flexibility. If you're writing a job description from scratch, you can find plenty of books, software programs and Web sites with templates and ready-made definitions that cover the basics of specific positions. While these can be helpful, they almost always need tweaking to suit the demands of your organization. It's easy to find a job description for an accountant, for instance, but your description may change, depending on whether you need the employee handle accounts receivable, accounts payable or both. With lower-level positions, you want to be as specific as possible when describing a position, but as you assign higher-level roles in your company, it's best to stay as general as possible. You want to indicate a freedom to act -- and the more independent judgment employees have, the greater chance they can be classified as exempt. Also, the more flexibility you give employees, they more they'll be motivated to grow and contribute.

Revise, revise, revise. Some positions within a company are static, but others are fluid, evolving each year as a business grows. Know which employees are constantly taking on new tasks or responsibilities and revisit the descriptions for their positions either annually or every six months. You might even want to hand employees their job descriptions so they can give them an once-over and revise or write new ones. After all, no one knows a job better than the person who does it every day. It also never hurts for employees to know exactly what they are supposed to do and what is expected of them.

Forecast the future. Think about how you might like to expand or develop the job in the future. Ask yourself: What would you eventually like for your employee to be able to do? You can still include these duties on the job description -- just list them at the bottom and move them up as the position evolves or the employee takes on more responsibility. And when an employee leaves, and it's time to pull out the job description again, don't just file it away after you've posted an online ad. Take a second look at it, in light of current needs, long-term objectives and new technologies. Is this what you want the position to be, or do you want to take it in a new direction? Now is the perfect time to revamp -- before conducting interviews and hiring someone else.

Reprinted with permission by the National Federation of Independent Business. All rights reserved.

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