Writing Job Descriptions

We’ve written quite a bit on the blog about things you can do as a candidate to help your employment chances.

We’ve talked about interviews, references, voice mails all kinds of things.

It struck me tonight that we have been ignoring the other side of the equation and that is from the perspective of the hiring manager.

So I am going to write some pieces that I hope will help you if you find yourself in a position where you are going to market with a position to fill.

There is a lot of places to start I suppose since some job openings are sudden and others are planned for long term. Some come up because of expansion and growth others are created through organizational development planning.

I don’t want to get into the evolution of how a job is created so I will start at a basic point in the process: The Job Description.

Have you ever had to write a job description? It can be quite difficult for some people. Companies actually employ people to write job descriptions. They are called Hr Generalists and they are often lousy at it. Why? Because they aren’t the experts on the position you are trying to fill – you are.

I once had a major consulting engagement with a Fortune 500 firm. They had lousy job descriptions. Mainly because no body wanted to sit down and write them. So they would go to this big old black binder that someone had put together years ago and copy stuff out of it. If a position description existed with the exact same title they would use that.

I’ll never forget the first time I read their description for a Sales Representative. The first line under Duties was:

“Maintain customer care”

I went to one of the sales managers and asked, “What is the main focus of a Sales Representative?”

His answer: “Make quota. “

“I see so that is his main goal?”
“Yes I need a rep that can make the numbers”
“What about customer care?”
“Isn’t customer care an important issue?”
“No don’t worry about customer care that’s what the customer service department is for. I will handle any customer care issues – just get me someone who can make quota!”

I went back to my desk and revised the job description. The first line now read: Meet or exceed sales targets.

I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether the Sales Manager’s focus on quota first and customer service second was a valid way to conduct his business, I merely raise it to illustrate what I believe to be the most important thing in developing a good job description and that is this: Begin with the end in mind.

Ok so I stole that from Steven Covey but it is quite appropriate here. If you have a position that you are filling and you want to develop a good position description you should first start by looking one year ahead. In that year what do you want the person to accomplish in this role? Is there a major project that has to be completed? Are there sales targets to be met? Are there products that need to be developed? Whatever the position is from CEO to Admin Assistant you should be able to devise some tangible measures for the position.

This is your first starting point. When you know where you are going you can draw the map.

So let’s say for arguments sake you are going to hire a sales rep and you want to increase sales in a particular territory by 20% this year. Assuming this is a reasonable goal how does the sales rep go about increasing sales in the region? Will it be by acquiring new customers or by increasing business in current accounts?

If it is the former then the one of the main functions of the job will be prospecting for new business or prospecting for new accounts. If it is the latter then account management or account development is going to be a key aspect of the position.

Flipping from long term to short term think for a minute about what this person’s typical day would be like. I mean the person comes in at whatever time – 8:30 am for example has a cup of coffee and then what? What are some of the key tasks this person will be performing?

Going back to our sales example perhaps the person will come in briefly but spend most of his day on the road calling on customers or making cold calls. But there may be other aspects of this person’s position that are important as well. For example is part of his day spent completing sales orders? Does he have to write proposals? All of these things should be included in the position description. If you aren’t sure about what makes up a person’s day go and ask someone in the same position right now. You might be surprised at what they tell you.

Once you have an idea of the duties of the position you can easily start developing an idea of what the skills and attributes of the position should be.

For example: strong cold calling skills, proposal writing skills, territory management skills etc.
Now you should have two main areas of the job description completed. The first would be the Duties and Responsibilities section and the second would be the Skills section.

You can add to that other requirements like degree or certification and presto you have a job description. Now you can bring it to HR and they can translate it to corporate speak for their big binder.

I know that the examples I have been using are rather simplistic but I didn’t want to overload you with detail and besides this is a blog not a book.

However the point remains valid for all types of positions. If you are going to write a good position description start with concrete goals for the position and then work backwards right down to a typical day you will definitely improve the quality of your written descriptions.

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