Creating position descriptions and what to cover

Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR
By Jason Ennor, Co-founder and CEO at MyHR

There’s been a bit of discussion in some circles about what position descriptions should and shouldn’t cover.

We’ve had people ask why MyHR keeps position descriptions (or job descriptions, as they’re also called) very succinct, focused on the high-level details and requirements of the job and leaving out any nonessential detail about performance targets or the organisation and its hierarchy.

So, I thought I would spell out the rationale for keeping position descriptions short, sharp, and clear.

First up: the legalese

Under the Fair Work Act 2000, there is no legal requirement to create position descriptions. Modern awards classifications contain sufficient detail to warrant not having a position description for a role, so we advise treading carefully when creating them.

However, position descriptions are useful for non-award employees, as they mean the business has a clear idea of what the position is and what they require of the person doing it. They also clarify employees’ expectations about their role and work, and what the business expects of them.

But a description doesn't need to be long and extremely detailed. In fact, these sorts of lengthy documents can trip you up, getting out of date and not accurately reflecting the current reality of the role.

Staying flexible

We all know that in our modern business world, jobs change over time, as a company develops or changes tack, markets shift, new technology is introduced, new projects come online etc.
Most people don’t refer to the position description much once the job offer is accepted and an employee starts work, but if you make changes to a role, there are legal requirements to consult with your people (set out in legislation, modern awards, and enterprise agreements) and the changes should be recorded in the position description.

Long descriptions that define the job in painstaking detail can become a burden, because they can easily get out-of-date and no one wants to have to regularly re-write them. Worse still, outdated job descriptions that don't accurately reflect the reality of the role can pose a legal risk.

Performance management

Now, you’re probably not going to have issues with employees that perform well, pull their weight, and understand the business. They’ll use their initiative and adapt to changes or new ways of working (or actually lead the business in making them).

Where things can get sticky is when you have dated or inaccurate position descriptions and you need to address stubborn underperformance or take disciplinary action that results in dismissal.

If the worker disputes this and you are using the position description as evidence they haven't done as agreed, if it’s not current, the person may well have rights to lodge an unfair dismissal claim.

Or, change management

Convoluted, inaccurate position descriptions could also land you in trouble when you need to make changes to your business’s structure or adjust an employee’s responsibilities. We’ve seen employees successfully challenge redundancies or role changes by referring to the actual content of the job description, which the employer had not properly examined or referenced in the change-management process.

Job grading

For organisations that operate formal job grading, they may well need long, detailed position descriptions that cover reporting lines, budgets, accountability parameters, org charts etc. This enables the job grading professional to work their magic and give the job a “grade” or level, which then places the role in a benchmarked pay band.

In reality, these complex grading requirements are the exclusive domain of large corporate organisations and government departments. In this blog, my interest is in the pragmatic, "real world" of small and medium-sized businesses, where the 7-page position description that satisfies a job grading requirement is just not necessary.

Salary benchmarking and defining jobs doesn’t need to be complex; the data is out there and companies with clear vision, purpose, and values can easily slot roles into their structure, then determine their level.

In my experience, sorting jobs into grades or bands can be a process that is very easily manipulated if the right grade is not attained. But that’s a topic for another day.

However, if your employee is covered by a modern award or enterprise agreement, and you are making changes to their role, you should check whether the change also changes any of the requirements under the applicable award/agreement, including their classification, pay rate, allowances, etc.

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KPIs are for performance reviews

We most definitely do not recommend putting key performance indicators (KPIs) in a position description because these regularly change to meet business needs and personal development needs.

KPIs have their place in performance reviews, where they can be adjusted each year (or defined period) to meet these business needs and individual development requirements.

Do I need a person profile section?

We don't recommend having a “person profile” section, either. These typically attempt to describe the ideal person’s characteristics, ambitions, and goals, but such descriptions rarely reflect reality and don't help to clarify a person’s expectations about their job and their work.

Person profiles are also a minefield for discrimination. Describing the “ideal person” to perform a job can lead managers down dangerous paths, given all humans carry biases and preferences that are informed by our life experience. You don’t want to add any potential discrimination risks to your employment practices.

What about skills and experience?

On the other hand, having a “skills, experience, and education” section can be useful. The title is self-explanatory: it’s a brief description of the skills and experience the company believes will make for a successful person in this role.

Skills, experience and education are factors that are not inherent to a person’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on, so are much less likely to be discriminatory. While it isn’t technically a “description of the work to be performed”, it is a picture of the criteria for a successful hire or promotion, which helps soothe conversations with your employees about their career development, performance management, or across units or departments when you’re managing a large team.

The section also covers any critical qualifications or industry certifications that are vital for certain roles.

A best-practice example

As an example of our best-practice in action, a Sales Representative’s position description could be as simple as:

  • Sell products and meet sales targets.
  • Complete reports.
  • Be professional.
  • Be safe.
  • Be nice to customers and colleagues.
  • Communicate well.
  • Uphold company values.
  • Anything else reasonable we ask of you.

Then their performance review (not position description), would look like:

  • Increase revenue by 23% year on year.
  • Maintain a gross profit margin of 42% on all sales.
  • Complete 50 cold-calls per week.

These KPIs may change next year, without requiring a change to the position description or employment contract. They can be updated to meet business needs and changing market conditions.

When to create a position description

At MyHR, we create position descriptions as part of the requirement work that leads to recruiting for a role. It’s all about getting a clear view of what the business needs by defining the work that needs to be done, and what the ideal candidate would bring to the role (job descriptions are great for forming the basis of your job ads).

Launching a recruitment drive without an accurate position description will mean the hiring process could end up shaping the role, because you won’t clearly understand why you’re recruiting or what you need in a candidate, and you won’t be able to clearly articulate it to potential employees.

A poor position description will also make onboarding harder, as your new employee won’t know exactly what they’ve been hired to do. This means more time and effort on the part of management getting the person up to speed.

Learn more about effective recruitment.

Making changes to a role? Follow good process

Just a reminder here about following the proper change process. If you make changes to a person’s job, task or responsibilities, make sure you record the changes in the position description so it accurately captures the truth of the role. This isn’t only for minimising risk, but it’ll also mean you won’t have to overhaul it if you need to use it for recruitment.

Significant changes to a role should always be justifiable (“they didn’t seem like they were performing“ isn’t a good enough reason) and done by consultation with the employee.

Don’t go changing a person’s position description without talking to them about it and getting their input, it could be a breach of their employment contract. It could also be a breach of consultation requirements under a modern award (if one applies).

It's also worth noting that a significant change could trigger a redundancy, in the case the new duties are so different that they negate the original job.

If you are making changes to a role or want more general help with your people processes, get in touch with the MyHR team.