Who drafts the Job Description?

Sep 30, 2021 | Job Descriptions

Writing job descriptions

 

Question is – how do you get consistently well-written, high-quality and compelling job descriptions for all the roles in your organisation? Back when I was starting out in HR, I had to conduct job analysis interviews, and capture what people told me about their jobs. Then I had to write it up, so I developed a system and a knack for doing it. I learned what questions to ask, and how to ask them to get to the facts of the job, and found concise, useful ways to express the core of the job. I got enough practice so that I could do it well. But I was asking myself – why don’t the job-holders and their managers do that work? But this was many years ago. Nowadays, you’re as likely to find managers who complain saying “What? You mean I have to talk to some dusty HR function to describe my job??!”

 

 

The challenge is that most organisations I’ve seen don’t have a good process for capturing all the important facts of their jobs. More than that, jobs do change, so you need to learn the craft of writing job descriptions that have lifespan. You don’t want to have to revisit job descriptions every few months to add in some new change. If you haven’t got a good process, build one.

 

 

“If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing”  –  W. Edwards Deming

 

 

Experience shows that lots of people dislike writing Job Descriptions (or you might prefer the term Role Profile), with many managers regarding it as an unwelcome administrative chore which they don’t see the value of doing. It’s true that some organisations have no appetite for the work that goes into creating good job descriptions. Remember that writing is thinking – and writing is rewriting. It might take a few iterations until it’s written clearly and succinctly.

 

But let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Consider the alternative of just showing up to work without any direction or guidelines on what you’re being paid to do. An environment where there is no boundary on your responsibilities, nor any clarity, and where managers make it up as they go along. It may be the fashion in some organisations to make it almost a badge of pride when they announce “we’ve got rid of all the job descriptions”, but more often than not it can be a recipe for chaos.

 

Businesses, especially flexible, matrix-managed and early stage companies sometimes reach this view if they’ve ever encountered the inflexible jobsworth who says “that’s not in my job description”. But people place value on defining their work, knowing what they have to achieve, and in knowing that their managers shares their understanding of what’s expected and “what good looks like” in their job performance.

 

An investment of time 

 

 

Yet it can be hard to persuade managers that there’s value in the exercise. But the advantages are several –

 

  • Having a clear, agreed document that can be used to evaluate the job
  • To aid the recruitment process – a compelling job description that attracts the talent.
  • A guideline for what the company expects the jobholder to do, and a useful document for identifying training needs
  • A record of what the job is today – in the event that the job ever changes in future, we can track what the changes are
  • A means of informing performance conversations
  • The organisation has a clear picture of where one job ends and the next job up/down in the hierarchy begins
  • The organisation builds the foundations for creating logical and workable career paths

 

 

But what way should you go with this? Do you rely on the line manager to write the job description? Is there a chance that they’ll simply delegate the task to the jobholder – and if so, is there a danger that the jobholder will “talk the job up” and exaggerate their responsibilities in a bid to get a higher grade? Do you ask someone in the HR team to draft the job description – who maybe has only a shaky knowledge of the job? Or do you (assuming there’s a budget) hire on an external consultant, perhaps with industry knowledge, to draft the job descriptions? Whichever option you take, there’s work to do, and it’s going to take some time. There are also some risks with each of these approaches.

 

 

If you hire a consultant to write the job descriptions…

 

 

It’s often assumed that an external consultant will do a better job than people internally (who inevitably know more about the company). The external consultant probably has experience in writing job descriptions, and knows what sorts information it’s important to capture to make a decent job description (i.e. one that’s good enough to complete a job evaluation on). But unless they know your industry well, they won’t know much about the company or the jobs. They might conduct job analysis interviews with managers or job holders, though nowadays many organisations find this to be a time-consuming and costly activity (especially since the consultant is probably paid on a day rate). It’s hard to put a price on industry knowledge – all these particulars and little nuances of jobs which people in the industry know, but which outsiders don’t. Without that local knowledge, it’s too easy to go astray, and overlook important aspects of jobs.

 

Another aspect which sometimes surprises people is that the larger consultancies assign such activities to junior members of their staff, who probably know very little about your industry, your company or your problems. This almost inevitably means they are inexperienced consultants who often lack any appreciation of the challenges your managers are facing. They ask questions so rudimentary as to be insulting to managers, who become annoyed and unhappy with the service, feeling it a waste of their time. It’s an ineffectual approach that does little to gain traction for this important activity – managers talk to other managers, and before long, your project ends up going nowhere. Not ideal. If you want a consultant that’s reliable for this, get one with industry knowledge.

 

 

 

 

If you write job descriptions using your own staff within the company…

 

While it’s true that you gain in terms of company knowledge and local job knowledge, there are some aspects to weigh up carefully. It’s most likely that the line manager for the job in question will be tasked with writing the job description. They might do this in conversation with the job holder, or from what I’ve found, just as often they don’t want to do it themselves, so they ask the job holder to write it. It’s often helpful here if Reward Team provide guidance notes or some conversational coaching to the manager, since the writing talents of managers are variable. The more articulate manager who also write well will probably do a good job of it, however many managers are neither articulate nor good writers – so they need help. Templates, guidance notes and coaching support all help.

 

Reward Team and HRBPs can provide help in capturing the main responsibilities, using the right terminology and wording to put across what the job is really about. At this point, it’s worth saying that we want the core aspects of the job, not every one-off activity the job holder performs. I’ve seen more than a few job descriptions of 20 pages or more! Three pages should be enough to capture what’s important, and what’s expected in the job. Oddly enough, I’ve even seen was a Head of Reward spending a great deal of time writing many dozens of job descriptions (when they probably should’ve been working on more value-adding activities) mainly through an ineffectual approach to influencing managers to do it. It’s a sketchy approach. If a typical Head of Reward earns £80k – £100k per annum plus car and bonus, that’s a highly paid writer of JDs! The company could get better value elsewhere.

 

With brand new jobs, it can be hard for managers to know “what good looks like” – and find it hard to envision what the role is really about until they’ve seen someone doing the job for 6 months or so. Equally, it’s a problem if they base the content on the current job holder– because this has to be about the job and not the person, so it’s worded as neutral and irrespective of who performs it. It requires careful thinking through of the job holder’s education, professional experience, and job results to get a clear picture of “who could do that job”. Similar difficulties can arise when it comes to capturing the important details of unusual or hybrid jobs, which don’t fit into a job category or one job family easily.

 

Asking job holders to write their job description

 

In practice, this happens very often. As mentioned earlier, giving the job holder the task of writing up the job description is often taken as a green light to “talk the job up”, to exaggerate and build in many more responsibilities than is really the case. This is why we require the person writing the job to describe it “as it is today” and not as it will be in a year or two from now (which would be an open invitation to talk the job up, wasting more time when you have to ask them for a rewrite). When HR and Reward professionals encounter this issue of jobs being talked up, they have to push back where necessary, to make sure they get facts and not opinions (or wishes). Equally, while many people attempt to talk the job up, there are others who understate the job. Reward and HR have “no axe to grind” on this – we simply want to understand the job and its true level in the company.

 

Managers, if more than one step removed from the jobholder, might not have enough detailed knowledge of their day-to-day activities to write an informed job description, e.g. a function or department head who manages a team of supervisors, one of whom manages the job in question. They might simply miss out what’s important, or get the emphasis wrong.

 

One solution to this, much favoured in the public sector, is to conduct an interview, sometimes with the aid of computerised job evaluation software (such as GAUGE), where the job holder and manager (and sometimes a Trade Union representative) meet to answer questions that help to size the job. Supposedly here, everything is conducted in an above-board fashion, the job holder being afforded every opportunity to describe their job. The analyst takes notes as the meeting goes on, and these notes form the basis of the job description. Even this is not a perfect solution, and many find it too time consuming. I’ve never yet found such a lavish and time-consuming approach in the private sector.

 

The last option is to get HR people to draft the job description. But their knowledge, especially of technical jobs, might be very sketchy, and they would then have to set up job analysis interviews to understand the job (No understanding = no evaluation). Or a Reward person might be asked to conduct the job analysis meeting – someone with knowledge of writing job descriptions as well as company knowledge, and this might be a solution. But Reward teams are often small, and don’t have the time for such an activity, especially if there are many hundreds of distinct roles requiring job descriptions.

 

 

 

 

What’s the most effective, workable approach?

 

We might also ask – which approach gives you value? So, we’ve seen that the available approaches all have their problems, the commonest concern being inaccuracies in the job description, resulting in JDs which neither reflect the job well, nor do it justice. This in turn can lead to incorrect job evaluation and salary benchmarking.

 

A panel or a review group could read, cogitate, digest, redraft and agree job descriptions before they are put into use in the company. It means adopting what some will consider an unnecessarily bureaucratic approach,but if you have panels comprised of a representative group of people from the company (not only senior managers), the possible bias and exaggeration can be eliminated. It’s also worth considering that the kind of posturing, game-playing and political points-scoring than can accompany a room full of large egos is no longer a concern, as we simply get to the facts of the job. If you select the members of such a group wisely, you also improve the buy-in to the eventual outcomes of this exercise (which is often a substantial initiative, e.g. a job evaluation project aimed at changing the grading system, a major recruitment drive, or a new competency framework) – people have greater commitment to the eventual outcomes when they have some “skin in the game”.

 

Job descriptions often go through a few iterations before reaching a version that everyone can agree on, one which reflects the facts of the job accurately. Often the job holder is the best person to do this, then agree it with their line manager. HR and Reward can provide a quality or format check, sometimes asking for explanation on what the job-holder must deliver. A good job description should provide clarity, focus and direction, as well as helping with recruitment, training needs identification, and job evaluation.

 

Maybe you’re at a point where your jobs are changing and you need to take action. If you need practical tools or support on drafting job descriptions, role profiles and person specifications, get in touch on the Contact section, or DM me on LinkedIn or Twitter to discuss your requirements.

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