Good Job Descriptions Make Good Hires (Part 1)

Most people view a job description as a list of duties that is hauled out of mothballs at the start of performance review season and used as a checklist for grading employee achievement against employer expectations.  Granted, a job description can serve that purpose.  Correctly drafted, however, a job description can be (as my son would say), “all that and a bag of chips.”  It is useful at every stage of employee management, and particularly in hiring an employee.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say, you can’t have a truly good hire without a good job description.

A good job description meets the needs of each participant in the hiring process, identifies and describes the essential functions of a particular job, and sets the bar on the skills, education and experience necessary to fill the position.  Human resources professionals must craft a job description that captures these three elements.  This post, the first of several discussing the creation of good job descriptions, will focus on how the job description can meet the needs of the participants in the hiring process.

Participant Needs  The participants to a typical hiring process are:  Managers and Supervisors, Human Resources professionals, Interviewers, and, of course, good Candidates.  Focus on them and their objectives when creating the job description.

Management:  To assure company needs are met in the hiring process, the manager needs a job description that accurately reflects the position to be filled.  To meet management needs, at a minimum, the job description should answer the following questions:

  1. What are the duties of the position that needs filling?
    1. What are the essential functions of the vacant position?
    2. What are the physical requirements that must be met to perform the essential functions?
  2. What is the reporting structure?
    1. To whom does the employee report?
    2. Who reports to the employee?
  3. What is the nature of the relationship?
    1. Is the individual to be hired as an employee?  And if so, are they exempt or non-exempt?
    2. Is the individual to be hired as an independent contractor?
  4. What are the required hours?
    1. How many hours per week are required? Is the employee full- or part-time?
    2. What shift does the position work?

Managers usually conduct at least one interview of the candidate and make the ultimate hiring decision.  Accordingly, they should help Human Resources draft the job description and  use it when they act as an Interviewer or decision-maker in the hiring process.

Human Resources and Interviewer:  The job description gives direction and focus to the human resource and interviewing activities within the hiring process.  This group could also include recruiters and screeners.  These participants are combined because their activities often overlap.  For instance, development of interview questions may be done by either the Human Resources professional or the Interviewer; marketing can be performed by HR or Recruiters (or both).  Small or mid-sized companies may have only one individual in charge of all of these functions.

Sourcing and Marketing:  The job description assists in defining the source of candidates for the position.  For instance, if the job requires a license, an association of licensed members can provide a rich applicant pool; i.e., if your company is looking to hire an accountant for the California finance department, advertise the job to the California Society of CPAs.  A complete, in-depth description of duties, skills, education and experience, can direct you to websites, or blogs that identify your perfect candidate (often by name!) and help focus your marketing efforts.  (I can hear many of my readers sigh and comment, “Just hire a good recruiter.”  My response is, “Even a good recruiter needs a good job description.”)

Compliance:  One of the most critical roles that the job description can play in the hiring process is to enhance the company’s ability to react in a legally compliant manner when presented with a disabled candidate.  It enables the company to determine whether it can or must reasonably accommodate a potential employee’s physical or cognitive disabilities.

A good job description provides a list of functions that are essential to the position and a physical activity checklist tied to those functions.  For instance, if an essential function of the job is to type, the physical activity checklist should cross-reference that function and state that the employee must be able to perform repetitive tasks with hands and arms for extended periods of time.  This level of specificity allows the company to craft questions designed to elicit information about an applicant’s ability to perform essential functions while maintaining compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or state and local disability laws.

This is a preparation point.  Those drafting the job description or participating in the hiring process should work with in-house legal or an outside employment lawyer before the interviewing process begins.  In advance, they must clarify how the job functions and physical requirements are related, and how to legally question an obviously disabled candidate (i.e., a blind applicant, applicant in a wheelchair, or an applicant with a missing limb), or candidates who inquire about workplace accommodations.

Lawyer Lesson:  There is no law that requires an employer to have job descriptions.  That being said, any employment lawyer worth her salt will tell you that you miss a golden opportunity to:  (a) set out the employer’s performance expectations, (b) lay the groundwork for disability accommodations; and (c) identify common skill sets and responsibilities between employees, supervisors and managers, if you don’t use job descriptions.

Think about it.  The job description contains a pre-dispute, neutral and public statement of the employer’s position on topics that are frequently the source of employment disputes and lawsuits; i.e., performance management or workplace accommodations, etc.  For instance, if your job description sets out the position’s duties, it is a pre-existing roadmap for performance improvement.  Or if the job description contains a description of the physical requirements for performance of specific duties, it supports accommodation efforts.  Moreover, when an employer is faced with the task of reducing its work force, it is better to start with a comparison of the duties performed and skills required for each position, than to begin by comparing people and their performance.  If the employer can provide a neutral description of two jobs, and can prove that one set of skills is greater or must be retained for work after the RIF, it becomes much more difficult for the terminated employee to claim that the RIF was personal or discriminatory.

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By Mary Wright

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