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Position Descriptions

Common manager perspective

An accurate position description (PD) is an HR requirement, used primarily for classification and vacancy filling purposes. Once these functions are fulfilled, some managers never refer to the PD again, and many employees do not have their own copies of the document. Even when they do, the language used to describe key responsibilities and tasks may be so obscure and laden with bureaucratic terminology as to defy comprehension. Adding to the confusion, position descriptions that include 8, 10, or more primary responsibilities and dozens of tasks within those responsibilities do little to clarify the most important question: Exactly what work is this individual performing on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis?

Another view

While position descriptions inform classification and vacancy-filling decisions, they have many important and utilitarian functions for everyday supervision-for example:

  • To clarify the work that needs to be done in order to develop solid candidate interview questions that focus on key responsibilities, knowledge, skills, and abilities;
  • To provide realistic information about the job for interested and appropriately-qualified applicants in order to enhance job fit for new hires;
  • To articulate knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for successful performance so that training and development efforts are in alignment with individual, team, division, and organizational goals and objectives;
  • To provide a neutral document that frames expectations for an employee (which, of course, assumes there is also ongoing, regular communication between supervisor and employee about performance and results);
  • To provide a foundation helpful for performance coaching discussions.

At the core of the matter, a position description is like an employment contract between the employer and employee. As such, it is used in all kinds of legal and quasi-legal situations-arbitrations, lawsuits, unemployment claims and more.

Key questions

In order to be effective management tools in fulfilling multiple functions, position descriptions should be clear, fairly brief, and to the point. As you review the document, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Is it accurate?
  2. Are the responsibilities broad enough so that the work can change somewhat over time and still be reflected within the stated responsibilities? (Advice: Identify 5-7 principal responsibilities.)
  3. Does the PD concentrate on the most important expectations of the position rather than including those which are incidental to the work? Ask yourself, Why does the job exist?
  4. Are the knowledge, skills, and abilities both realistic and in line with your expectations?
  5. Can you use the PD as a communication tool-not only for classification and discussion with HR, but also for creating interview questions, identifying training and development needs, communicating expectations, and addressing possible performance problems?
  6. Is the document straightforward and brief? If a PD is more than four pages long, it is unlikely to be an effective management and communication tool.
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