How to Use Job Descriptions
Being Clear about Roles and Goals
When did you last look through your job description? In fact, do you know where your copy is? Maybe you're not sure that you've got one at all!
Job descriptions provide an outline of a role's main responsibilities, and can help to attract new talent. But they need to be "live documents," subject to regular review. It's not just a case of keeping the standard text spruced up ready for the next hire. Instead, they should be consulted frequently, and used to support career development and growth. They should also give your people a sense of purpose and fire up their passion for their work, by explaining how important their roles are to achieving your organization's aims.
In this article, we'll explore how you can use job descriptions actively to hire the right people, to maintain "fit" with personal and team goals, and to make sure that your recruits make the very best of their talents.
If you're looking for advice on how to create an effective job description, see our article, Writing a Job Description.
Purpose of Your Own Job Description
Your job description may be a separate document from your contract of employment, but it still forms the basis of your relationship with your employer, as follows:
Clarifying Goals and Expectations
When you start a new role, your job description should make it clear what expectations your manager has of you, and how you'll contribute to the team. In particular, you can use the key duties and responsibilities listed in your job description to help you to establish your objectives and goals.
Sharing job descriptions can help you and your colleagues to work together to a common end. For example, if everyone knows what one another's roles are, it will be easier for people to know who to collaborate with, who to support, and who could benefit from your advice.
You'll also be able to avoid situations in which everyone looks at a task and says, "That's not my job!"
Developing and Safeguarding Your Role
Keeping your job description updated can help you to spot new opportunities for career development. This enables you to set boundaries, so that you can focus on your key responsibilities and stop others from distracting you with tasks that fall outside your remit.
For example, let's say that you're an assistant in a sales team, and you're asked to take on responsibility for data analysis. You could request that the duty be added to your job description, as it could open up new training opportunities, and perhaps allow you to move into a more senior role within the team.
On the other hand, you can also refer to your job description when you're subjected to what you consider to be unreasonable demands to take on extra duties or responsibilities. This can help you to avoid the risk of overwork.
If you feel the need to use your job description to protect yourself in this way, discuss the situation one-on-one with your manager or, if you prefer, your HR department. Beware of simply referring colleagues to your job description, as this may come across as pedantic and uncollaborative. It should be possible to resolve the situation more amicably.
Benefits of a Job Description When You Apply for a New Role
Job descriptions are especially valuable when you're looking to transfer to a new role. Check whether the vacancy details include a link to one, as it may give you a good indication of how well the job would suit you. But bear in mind that some job descriptions can be rather "dry," and may only refer to an organization's values or culture in passing, if at all.
If you see a job that interests you, try the following:
- Compare the job description with your résumé. Is the role generally a good match for your skills, or are there areas that you might struggle with? Do you have experience in other areas that could make up for any skills gap?
- Pick the right match-ups. When you write your cover letter, highlight key items from the job description that match your résumé. Don't overdo it, though – you need to keep the letter short, but give the recruiter a reason to be interested.
- Prepare for the interview. When you get an interview, use the competencies listed in the job description to identify what you will emphasize in your answers.
If you don't match all the requirements specified for a role, it can be easy to dismiss your chances of getting it, and so not even apply. But you may have other skills and attributes that would make you an excellent candidate. Club members can explore this issue further with our Expert Interview, The Paula Principle.
Purpose of a Job Description When You're a Manager
A meaningful job description explains what an organization expects of its people in their particular roles. It also allows you to measure team members' performance against those expectations, to help them to acquire the skills they need to develop, and to suggest how their careers might progress.
Helping Your Team to Achieve Its Goals
If your people feel that their work plays an important part in helping the organization to achieve its wider objectives, they will more likely "buy-in" with energy and enthusiasm.
Use your team members' job descriptions to provide a sense of how and where each person fits into your organization. In particular, emphasize why individual roles exist and make sure that each person understands the value of what they do.
Consider having regular catch-up meetings with your team members to review company goals and how they relate to each section of their particular job descriptions. Our article, Using OKRs, explains how to do this in more detail.
This focus on the job description should give your team member a clear sense of their priorities and goals. It should also allow you to focus on any part of their role in which they have excelled, and to praise them for that.
Be careful to avoid suggesting anything that goes against your person's contract of employment, which is legally binding. Also, take care to stay within your organization's performance review process. Most such processes will, in any case, take job descriptions as their starting points.
Managing Your Team's Time
A job description should include a rough breakdown of the proportion of time a team member is expected to spend on each of their duties. Review this with them periodically, to ensure that they're using their time effectively.
For example, if your team member is spending more than the expected 20 percent of their time resolving customer complaints, you may need to adjust the time allowance for this task or reduce some of their other responsibilities. Or, you could provide training to help them resolve problems faster. In this example, it may highlight that there's an unseen issue creating a high number of complaints.
Developing Roles and Careers
People can often feel that their roles evolve faster than their job descriptions. Make a note of any changes in your duties or responsibilities as they occur.
Keep an eye on how your team members' roles may be changing, and show that you're aware of the changes. Encourage them to contribute their own ideas about whether the jobs they do accurately reflect their job descriptions. This dialogue can highlight opportunities for career development and training.
For example, a technical support worker might find that the problem-solving part of their job has developed into a software training role, for which they have a natural flair. Amending their job description to place more emphasis on training, and offering the chance to develop their skills as a trainer, could benefit both the employee and the business.
Check with your Human Resources team that you have the authority to change a job description. Although roles can evolve and some flexibility may be expected, and even encouraged, you don't want to lose sight of the job's original purpose.
A job description is also useful when reviewing a team member's performance. For example, a clear and objective statement of what the role requires can clear up any uncertainty if there is any disagreement or confusion over what was expected from your employee.
Hiring the Right People
Accurate, well-written job descriptions should be at the heart of any recruitment process. They can help you to identify applicants who have the necessary qualifications, experience and competencies to succeed in the role.
Job descriptions are useful at three key stages in the hiring process:
- Advertising the role. Your HR team will likely be responsible for placing job adverts, but your input to the final wording is crucial, and needs to be based firmly on the job description. Be sure to cover all the competencies and personal qualities you require.
- Assessing applicants. Separate serious contenders from weaker candidates by reading job applications alongside to a skills-based job description. Your organization may have a formal scoring system that you can use.
- Framing effective interview questions. Use the job description to develop a set of questions to test the candidates' skills and knowledge in a competency-based interview. These initial questions should be the same for every candidate you interview.
A well-written job description helps you to establish your place in your organization, and to align your goals and objectives with those of your team and business. It can also help you to spot opportunities for career development.
If you're a manager, job descriptions help to ensure that your team members all pull in the same direction. They can enable you to recognize good performance, and to identify opportunities for training and career development. They may also help to bring lower-performing team members back on track.
Job descriptions are the cornerstone of the recruitment process, allowing you to identify the key competencies for the role, to pinpoint good candidates, and to interview effectively.
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