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Job descriptions have many uses

By Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., Managing Editor at HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, August 2007

Several human resources specialists have stated that regardless of the size of the organization up-to-date job descriptions are crucial. If an organization does not have job descriptions or up-to-date job descriptions for each position in the company, the organization is considered out of date. Although a job description is a fundamental tool that can help increase individual and organizational effectiveness and human resources management, according to our latest HRinfodesk survey, only 34.84% of respondents stated that they have job descriptions for all jobs and only 34.19% have them in place for most jobs.

Below is a breakdown of the results of the recent HRinfodesk Poll that asked respondents: Do you have job descriptions for all positions in your workplace? Further information about job descriptions, their uses, and what elements and needs should be considered before working on your organization's job descriptions can be found below, including links to free tools and resources.

What is a job description?

A job description is a written statement of the most important features of a job, including the general nature of the work performed (duties and responsibilities) and level (i.e., skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions) of the work performed. It typically includes job specifications that include employee characteristics required for competent performance of the job. A job description should describe and focus on the job itself and not on any specific individual who might fill the job.

It also includes reporting relationships.

Job descriptions are very useful tools. They identify different-level jobs and chart a logical employee progression from one job to another; evaluate the worth of the job (i.e., assess the salary range of the position); identify job hazards or risks; and help facilitate labour relations negotiations.

What are job descriptions used for?

A job description can increase individual and organizational effectiveness, and human resources management by:

  • Helping recruit the right candidates because it clearly communicates the duties to be performed and qualifications required by the organization for a position.
  • Focusing interview questions, hiring criteria and the screening processes based on the duties and qualifications outlined in the job description.
  • Identifying areas where the employee does not adequately meet the qualifications of the position and therefore needs training. A job description can also help develop staff training objectives and content.
  • Helping each employee understand their importance in the organization, including in relation to other positions, and their duties and responsibilities.
  • Ensuring that the work carried out by staff is aligned with the organization's mission.
  • Establishing a work plan to help the supervisor or manager supervise and monitor the staff's performance. A job description can also be used as a criterion against which to appraise your employee's performance.
  • Developing a consistent salary structure that is based on relative levels of duties, responsibilities and qualifications of each position in the organization. A job description can also help in payroll equity comparisons.
  • Helping management clearly identify the most appropriate employee for new duties and realigning work loads.
  • Analyzing essential duties of a job when applying a return to work plan.
  • Helping the organization defend its decision if an employee is terminated for poor performance.

Writing an effective job description

Every company should have a well-written and up-to-date job description on file for each of its jobs. Job descriptions are valuable tools not only where hiring is concerned, but also to avoid future misunderstandings and crises. For example, in issues of discrimination and unfair treatment, a job description may in some cases provide evidence that refutes an employee's allegations about the sort of work he or she was expected to perform. Unfortunately, it often happens that job descriptions are prepared only when a company is facing a predicament such as a government audit, or an internal disciplinary or performance review, or a lawsuit by a disgruntled ex-employee.

The first task in writing a clear and well-drafted job description is to conduct a job analysis. Analyzing the requirements of the job and the job itself is an essential part of the duties of someone responsible for all aspect of recruiting and managing personnel accurately and effectively.

You can develop a job description by observing an employee performing the work in question, by interviewing the current employee, or key people within the company if the position is new, or, by questionnaires when interviewing is not possible.

A job description typically includes:

  • The job title
  • Basic purpose
  • A description of the job's essential duties and responsibilities, including any special expectations or requirements such as out-of-town travel or the use of particular kinds of machinery or software
  • A description of the education, skills, previous work experience required for the job, including any physical and health requirements
  • The name and title of the person responsible for supervising the job holder
  • The name and signature of the person who prepared the description
  • The date of the description's creation
  • A list of related jobs

If the job description is to be used for performance management purposes, it may also be useful to include definitions of how performance will be measured against each accountability (outputs of the job).

The following are some guidelines for preparing effective job descriptions:

  • Gather information on an existing job within the company, interview employees who do the job and spend some time observing them as they go about their work. This can include asking them to complete a questionnaire or keep a diary of their activities. Focus on the aspect of the job described and avoid issues such as job performance standards, employee complaints, and relationships between co-workers.
  • Consult reference works for descriptions of similar jobs or look at job descriptions created by job banks and other companies.
  • Use reference materials that will provide a list of commonly used terms in job analysis. These types of materials will let you know that job duties mean a single specific task, or that knowledge means a body of information applied directly to the performance of a duty.
  • Before drafting the part of the description that focuses on the qualifications necessary for the job (education, previous work experience, and so on), gather all the relevant facts about the job's duties and responsibilities and prepare a written summary of those facts. This helps clarify one's understanding of the nature of the job and makes drafting the qualifications part of the description easier.
  • Use action verbs and clear, concise language when preparing the description. Keep sentences short.
  • If the job description concerns an existing job within the company, ask the employees performing the job to give you their comments on a draft of the description. Submit copies of the draft to the supervisors of those employees as well. After the employees and their supervisors have provided their comments, make whatever changes are necessary and submit the revised description to management for final approval. This last step is an essential part of the process.

Most job descriptions are one to two pages. Circulate the first draft of the job description to the key people who provided input, and ask them if they think it is an accurate description of the job. If you are satisfied that it is complete and accurate, you are ready to write a job posting and use the job description's content in other human resources management tasks.

Resources and tools

The HRinfodesk Library database has several sample job descriptions for various positions and more are being added. You can find these samples by going to the Library section, selecting National, selecting Policies and Procedures, and then selecting Sample Job Descriptions. One of the samples is a job analysis checklist.

You can also check out the following website:


The Service Canada Labour Market Information site has a very useful tool that is provided free of charge and offers common duties or tasks performed and the general working conditions for an occupation to help you write your job descriptions. This service is based on the National Occupational Classification (NOC).

In addition, Human Resources and Social Development Canada has released a new tool: Job Descriptions: An Employers’ Handbook which is designed to help small and medium-sized organizations with their human resources management activities. It is also based on the National Occupational Classification (NOC), and can help users develop job descriptions to hire employees, evaluate employee performance and identify training needs. It also provides sample job description, sample performance review and training plan, sample job ad information, and pay rate comparison form. The tool is available in PDF format at www23.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/2001/e/generic/NOC_HB_070316_en.pdf.