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Do They Know What You Want? – Job Descriptions and How to Make Them Work

“They know what I want. We don’t need to write it down.” is often the response when the issue of the dreaded job description comes up. Most of the time, when asked, the poor employee is left guessing as to what the boss wants.

A survey showed that the response to the question “Do you know what is expected of you in your job?” 3% didn’t know, 12% were unsure, 44% were fairly sure and only 41% knew exactly. This means 59% didn’t know exactly what the boss wanted.

Job descriptions have acquired a less than favourable reputation, and for very good reason. They have tended to be long and full of activity based detail. Consequently they become out of date very quickly and quite useless.

However, a well written, results based job description can be useful for recruitment, performance management, identifying training needs and determining pay levels. On top of this, an employment contract without a related job description is taking an unnecessary risk.

So, how can we have something meaningful, useful, short, and that doesn’t require a huge administrative effort to prepare and maintain?

Our approach to this is to keep it simple. Here are the key steps.

Primary Objective – This is one or two sentences that give the overall reason for the job. eg To manage the plant within an agreed budget to produce high quality products which meet sales forecasts.

Key Result Areas (KRA’s)- There may be up to five or six of these. Anymore than this number and you are probably just listing tasks. These are the end results of why we are performing activities. Keep on asking “why” and eventually you should arrive at a useful end result. If not, why are you performing that task? Eg Resourcing: Ensure plant is resourced to meet manufacturing schedule in terms of raw materials, equipment and people.

Grouping KRA’s under headings sometimes helps in the writing. eg Planning, Operations, Quality, Reporting, Staff Development.

Measures – We need to have specific measures in place to ensure there are no arguments as to whether the results have been achieved or not. Eg Downtime due to shortage of resources is less than 2%. If there is a planning element in the job, the measure may be to gain agreement to the plan from all stakeholders. The next measure may then be to implement the plan in line with the criteria identified.

Typical qualifications and experience – This section gives an indication of the background required to carry out the job. It does not have to be the background of the current job holder.

Other relevant information – This area can take care of other elements relevant to the job such as shift work, travel or dealing with certain types or people.

With these areas carefully completed you should have a useful document that is only one or two pages long.

If it is written by the jobholder, they will have some ownership of it and it is more likely to get used.

If the KRA’s are broad they will not become out of date too often and the measures should make them meaningful.

Specific goals for the year can be extracted from each KRA for performance management and development. Where there are anticipated resource or development needs to meet the goals these can be addressed.

If you would like an example of a job description in this format, you can download one free of charge from the website shown below with the author’s details.

If you want to train your employees to write their own job descriptions, and this is the best way of achieving a long term outcome, a complete program is also available from the same website.

Paul Phillips is a Director of Horizon Management Group; a specialist human resource management consulting firm. He has over 30 years experience in HR and, while based in Australia, has worked in a number of overseas locations.