What to include in a job description

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 job descriptions should and shouldn’t cover.

We’ve had people ask why MyHR keeps job descriptions (or position descriptions, as some call them) 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 job descriptions short, sharp, and clear.

First up: the legalese

Under NZ law, a job description is 1 of 10 things every individual employment agreement must contain. The Employment Relations Act 2000 states the employment agreement must include ”a description of the work to be performed by the employee.” 

So, the content of the job description is a fixed part of the contractual relationship between an employer and employee, agreed to by both parties, written down, signed and stored in the agreement. Its sole purpose is to record what the employee is expected to do, describing the job rather than the person in it.

Staying flexible

Now, all would be well and good if the nature of the job stayed the same for ever and ever. But in practice, most roles change over time, as the business develops or changes tack, new technology is introduced, new projects come online etc.

Most people don’t refer to the job description much once the employment agreement is signed, but legally, if you make changes to a role (the rule of thumb is by more than 20%), this has to be done by consultation and mutual agreement, and must be reflected in the employment agreement.

This is where long job descriptions that define the job in painstaking detail can become a burden, because they can easily get out-of-date and no one wants to have to regularly re-write them. Worse still, outdated job descriptions that don't accurately reflect the current reality of the role can pose a legal risk.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 job descriptions and you need to address poor employee performance or take disciplinary action.

If there is a dispute and you are using the job description as evidence the employee hasn’t done as agreed, if it’s not current, the employee may well have rights to take a personal grievance claim.

Or, change management

Convoluted, inaccurate job 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 job 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 JD 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.

KPIs are for performance reviews

We most definitely do not recommend putting KPIs in a job 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, which is why job descriptions are a requirement in an employment agreement.

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 job 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 job 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 job description or employment agreement. They can be updated to meet business needs and changing market conditions.

When to create a job description

At MyHR, we create the job description 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 job 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 job description will also make onboarding harder, as your new hire 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 word here about following the proper change process. Significant changes to a role must be justifiable (“they didn’t seem like they were performing“ isn’t a good enough reason) and done by consultation in good faith. Don’t go changing a person’s job description without talking to them about it and getting their agreement. Failing to do so could mean your employee has grounds for a personal grievance claim.

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