July 20, 2020

Job Descriptions: What They Are, Why You Need Them, and How to Write Good Ones.

African american hiring manager offering a handshake to a new employee

Job descriptions are often the last item on your business’ lengthy HR to-do list.

However, quality job descriptions are an essential tool when it comes to setting expectations with employees, measuring their performance, and most importantly, managing your employees’ understanding of what is required of their position. And, what’s more, your job descriptions can be especially helpful at reducing your business’ risk of liability.

The fact is, it seems pointless to write a job ad to draw in excellent candidates if you aren’t using your job description to help identify the best attributes and skills that you want to see exhibited by those candidates. 

The content of your job description helps define success factors for employees in a given position, which includes  meeting the day-to-day requirements and completing the tasks assigned to that position, as well as the “soft skills” and professional demeanor expected of a candidate.

It is by paying attention to those “soft skills,” in addition to technical ability and experience, that will enable you to make long-term, great hires happen.

 

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What Are Job Descriptions?

Also known as “JDs” or “role descriptions”, Job Descriptions are internal documents that provide a written summary of the job duties, physical requirements, educational and licensing requirements, and standards of performance for each position in your office.

Where most managers go wrong is that they pay little or no attention to — and fail to include — soft skills and demeanor as success factors. 

Job descriptions should be provided to new employees once they are hired, and should be signed by the employee to indicate their understanding of expectations for their role at your business (CEDR’s HR Vault Software makes it easy to distribute job descriptions to your employees and collect signatures on them digitally. Sign up for your Free HR Vault Account here). 

One important distinction here: job descriptions are NOT the same thing as job ads. Rather, any ad you write for a given position should be composed using your job description for that position as a guide.

When written properly, not only do job descriptions help an employee to understand their role and responsibilities at your business, but they also serve a very important legal function in the event that an employee finds themselves in need of a disability accommodation (more on this shortly).

 
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What Information Should Be Included in a Job Description?

Job descriptions should be written using clear language, unbiased terminology, and present-tense verbs. For example, the phrase “Enters patient information timely and accurately into charts,” is better than “She will enter patient information in charts.”

If necessary, use explanatory phrases telling why, how, where, or how often the task should be done to add clarity.

 

Here’s what should be included in each job description you provide:

  • Job title
  • Classification as Exempt/Non-Exempt
  • Classification as Part-time or Full-time
  • Summary of the general nature of the job, broad functions, and scope of the position
  • List of physical requirements of the job
  • Essential functions and duties
  • Success factors
  • Educational or licencing prerequisites

When writing your job description, it is also important to be mindful of potential legal traps and common missteps that could leave your business vulnerable to potential employment lawsuits.

For example, requiring that all employees be able to lift 40 pounds when lifting is unrelated to the duties of the position could easily be construed as a discriminatory requirement.

 
be careful not to include discriminatory language in your job descriptions

 

Avoid Discriminatory Language

Avoid language that suggests your preferred employee for a given position should be of a specific gender, age, race, religion, family status, or that otherwise implies the exclusion of any protected class of individuals.

The use of gendered pronouns in your job descriptions could imply preference for one gender over another, and phrases like “young” or “youthful” could be interpreted to suggest age-based discrimination in your hiring practices. 

Further, using phrases like “clean-shaven” can be viewed as excluding applicants of certain religions that require men to grow beards, and forbidding specific natural hairstyles like afros, braids, or cornrows, or by requiring that female employees wear ponytails, for example, could be interpreted as racial discrimination. Some states and localities actually offer specific protections for certain hairstyles for this reason.

 

Set Reasonable Physical and Educational Requirements

Be careful not to set the bar for physical, educational, or other requirements higher than is necessary to perform the duties of the job. For instance, don’t require that a front desk person be able to lift 40 pounds (unless they’ll be expected to move heavy deliveries on their own) or that a janitor have a high school diploma.

By setting your requirements for a position too high, not only might you inadvertently exclude qualified candidates from your job search, but you can also open your business up to claims of discrimination.

 

Learn from a Qualified HR Professional

The nuances of appropriate vs. inappropriate language, as well as technical classifications — such as whether an employee should be classified as exempt or non-exempt or whether a certain job duty should be considered essential or marginal — requires specialized education and technical HR knowledge that not everyone possesses. 

It is a skill you can learn, however. And, once you have properly written job descriptions in place, it will be very easy for you to revisit and make changes as the job changes.

For this reason, you will want to work closely with a qualified HR professional to make sure you’ve dotted all of your I’s and crossed all of your T’s when it comes to gaining all of the advantages — legal and otherwise — which are afforded by well written job descriptions.

Each of the elements of a job description are important for different reasons but, written correctly, they all ultimately serve the purpose of protecting your business in the event that an employee demonstrates an inability to perform the necessary functions of the position for which they were hired. 

This is especially true when an employee becomes unable to perform their job duties as a result of a physical or mental disability.

 
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The Protective Power of Job Descriptions

Probably the most important part of the job description is the list of physical and mental requirements that are essential functions of the position. This becomes hyper-relevant when an employee is disabled due to illness or injury and needs to request an accommodation to do their job.

For example, a person with back issues may be unable to lift things over 30 pounds, or a pregnant employee may need to take more rest breaks than other employees. These restrictions are generally certified by the employee’s treating physician.

Whether you as an employer can accommodate such a restriction is based on what’s considered a “reasonable accommodation” and how it impacts the essential functions of the job.

The point is, employees must be able to perform their essential job duties with or without a reasonable accommodation. The job description serves as the basis for establishing these essential job functions. It therefore also serves as the most effective defense to a claim of disability discrimination by establishing that the individual was unable to perform one or more of the essential functions of the job, even with a reasonable accommodation. 

So, while job descriptions are not legally required, without one in place, you’re in a much more vulnerable position should an employee file a complaint against you.

By way of example, the essential functions of a receptionist might include answering phones in a professional manner while following scripts, whereas keeping the water cooler filled for patients is a marginal function.

 

Whether a function is essential or marginal depends on:

  • The importance of the duty to the company’s operation
  • How often the task is performed
  • Sufficiency of other staff to cover the duty
  • Whether the duty can be redesigned or performed in another way

 

Some examples of essential physical or mental functions for various jobs might include:

  • Lifting and carrying 40-60 pounds
  • Frequent bending, kneeling, reaching, and twisting
  • Standing or sitting for long periods of time
  • Climbing ladders
  • Handling and manipulating small hand tools
  • Problem-solving
  • Written and verbal communication skills
  • Computer and software skills
  • Ability to read and interpret text online or in print
  • Memorizing scripts for in-person and over-the-phone delivery

Note that, if you’re in a dental office, it may be important to include the need for an assistant to be present around nitrous oxide, especially if there are no other people in that role to cover for the individual should the employee become pregnant.

 
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Keep Your Job Descriptions Flexible 

Jobs are subject to change for reasons of professional growth, organizational development, and evolution of new technologies. 

Thus, job descriptions should be considered “living” documents that should be reviewed from time to time (perhaps at each annual review) and edited to add new duties or eliminate those that are no longer relevant. 

This keeps both the employer and employee on the same page about expectations for the job. It also keeps this important record accurate so it’s there if needed.

 

Conclusion

Job descriptions are an important component of your management strategy. If well-written, they help make expectations and performance evaluation criteria clear for employees, they make managing easier, and they provide valuable legal protections for your business.

Job descriptions are not job ads. Rather, your job ads should be written using your job description as a guide to help you ask for what you want from job seekers.

Once you’ve hired a new employee, you will want to have them sign their job description to indicate an understanding of what is expected of them in their role.

There are a number of important components that should be included in every job description you write, including the job title, classifications (exempt/non-exempt & part-time/full-time), summary of the position, lists of physical, educational, and licensing requirements, as well as success factors related to soft skills and professional demeanor.

Each of these elements needs to be written with help from a qualified HR professional to avoid using potentially discriminatory language, listing unreasonable requirements, and/or making potential wage and hour compliance mistakes that could leave your practice on the hook for lawsuits.

For CEDR Members, CEDR’s HR Solution Center provides sample job descriptions for most positions at your business. We can also help you customize job descriptions for any position in your office.

Non-members can download free job descriptions for dental assistants and front-desk persons here.

 

Related Reading:

How to Write a Job Ad that Attracts Top-Tier Applicants.

Now’s Your Chance to Hire Your Dream Team.
 
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Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.