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Jessica Chesher

Managing Editor

Innovation eReview
HR Feature
by Liz Lonergan

Welcome to the second in our ongoing saga (hey, this is turning into way more than a series) on hiring employees for your business. We know it’s May, which means madness and mayhem on college campuses, so we’ll skip the frivolity and witty repartee, we figure what with graduation speeches and all coming up you’ll be eyeball deep in frivolity and witty repartee, so we’ll just get right to job descriptions, everything you never knew that you’d be afraid to ask.

Job Descriptions

We know, we know, you’re a small business, maybe even a one person show, and you’re only going to hire one teeny, tiny little person, so why take the time to create a job description? Yup, it’s a pain, but it’s also a useful exercise and will help you to cement the duties and responsibilities of the position in your mind and will make you seem really, really organized and on the ball to potential employees. Attracting quality employees to a very small business (less than 5 employees) can be difficult, as the perception of job seekers, and the cold, hard truth, is that small employers don’t pay as much, don’t offer as many (if any) benefits and don’t offer well defined career tracks that employees can go down. Conversely, small employers do offer more flexibility, more variation in duties, aren’t as particular about requirements that are not pre-requisites for the job (such as Bachelor’s degrees for office clerks) and, for the right person, offer almost immediate opportunities for more and varied duties (as in “Wow! You know Publisher too! Say, can you do a brochure on our new widget….”) and have excellent access to the boss (a/k/a you), which believe it or not, is a big turn on for some people.

Many of you probably work for large institutions. Large institutions have large HR departments, which write large job descriptions. They are no better or worse than a one-page job description, and you are no better protected from the legal implications in having a large job description than a short one. Here’s our take on the legal issues involved in writing job descriptions, and, please remember, it’s only our opinion. The HR folks at your institution probably have a much different opinion than we do and that’s probably why we never did fit in real well in HR.

There is a lot of hysteria about job descriptions, as people inside and outside of HR believe that all sorts of dire consequences can come from not following job descriptions to the letter. Frankly, we don’t believe it. Certain types of employees will always (and we do mean ALWAYS) find a way to play their employer, and job descriptions are only one avenue open to them. Yes, it’s true that employees have sued their employers over job descriptions, but it’s rare and it’s usually only one line item in a whole litany of complaints by an employee. The bottom line is that in a job description there are things you don’t want to say, and things you do want to say (more on those in a minute), but there is no set formula required by the federal government. There are also common sense things that you should not put in your job descriptions, and you should not put anything illegal or discriminatory in a job description. For example you don’t want to say “On a weekly basis, dispose of all company radioactive waste in the town dump,” or “Candidates must be packing about 15 extra pounds, be of Irish descent and like to drink beer,” (and all of you who think this may resemble someone on the staff of the Innovation e-Review may have met one of us). You also have to be careful that you aren’t requiring things that the person will never do, such as requiring a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) if the person will only be driving the half ton company pick up truck (for which a CDL is not needed) occasionally. 

OK, now on to the disclaimer. If you are a regular reader of this feature, you may have noticed that we are wee bit opinionated on all things HR, and this month’s column is no different. We’re giving you our opinion on what we like to see in a job description, and it’s purely subjective, but is based in the reality of working in Human Resources and general management for a number of years. As always, a bunch of links are included at the end of the article, so those of you who need to know more, more more about job descriptions can scratch that itch. So, now that we’ve sold you on the importance of having a job description, let’s get to the content.


The first step is the title of the job, the duties and responsibilities of the job, the special requirements of the job (if any) and the qualifications needed for the job. Instead of doing our usual top down lecture, we thought we would make this a “learn by example” section. First, we’ll dissect all the components and then we’ll write a job description using those elements.

This is important now and in the future. Say you need someone to do your books, pay the bills, perform customer service and do other general clerical duties. You could title that job a myriad of ways, from “Office Clerk” to “Customer Service Manager” to “Chief Financial Officer”, and have a vestige of truth in each one, right? However, that person really isn’t a clerk, manager or an officer, they are some combination of all three, and their title should reflect that. In our experience bosses are either miserly or over zealous in their assignment of a title, and there are problems with either approach. If you title the job “Clerk” and the person is really performing more than basic, entry-level duties over half the time, they will resent their title. If you title the job “Director of Customer Service” and over half of their job is sticking mailing labels on envelopes, they will think their title is a joke. Many small businesses have wide-ranging job descriptions, which is absolutely acceptable, just try to come up with a title that reflects what the person does most of the time, not the 10 percent of the time they are stuffing envelopes, or, conversely, the 10 percent of the time you are not around and they are in charge. Giving someone a “bigger than necessary” title can come back to haunt you in a few years, for there is nothing worse than having to tell the former “Accounting Manager” that you have hired a new “Accounting Manager” (with a degree and higher level experience) and they are now the “Staff Accountant.”

If the person is working in an office environment, the word “Administrator” can be very helpful in a job description. It does not imply management per se, but it is a far cry from “Clerk.” In a technical or manufacturing environment, “Technician” or “Mechanic” can perform the same feat, being neither a “worker” (as in “Production Worker”) nor a manager.

The company that we were last associated with was a manufacturer of medical devices, and when we came on board at that company, we convinced the president to change the title of the production employees from “Assembler” to “Production Worker.” Not a huge leap, but those folks were thrilled because “Production Worker” has a higher perceived status and responsibility level than “Assembler” and don’t think for a minute those folks didn’t know it. There was no change of duties, but we did write new job descriptions (none had been done for over ten years, which is disgraceful) and used the new job descriptions as the vehicle by which we changed the titles. Employees and the outside world such as customers, vendors, and service providers pay close attention to titles, and so should you.


We also like to have a short, 1 to 2 sentence paragraph on the job, right after the title. This should be the “50,000 foot view” of the job, not the nitty-gritty of the actual tasks. For example, if the title of your job is “Office Administrator,” the paragraph might be something like this: 

"This position is responsible for the overall office tasks and administration, including bookkeeping, sales order entry, answering phones, office machines upkeep, greeting customers and performing administrative support tasks for the owner.”

Duties and Responsibilities

Now that you have the title and descriptive paragraph nailed down, it’s time to quantify the duties and responsibilities of the position. We must first tell you that it is totally, completely and utterly impossible to capture every task a person will do in their job so don’t even try. Do try, however, to capture the five most important or repetitive tasks that person will do in their job. For example, in our “Office Administrator” position, one of their primary responsibilities is providing administrative support for the owner, so the first several lines of the “Duties and Responsibilities might read as follows:

• “Provides overall and general administrative support, including typing, filing, answering and routing phone calls and handling customer inquiries.”
• “Routinely composes business letters in response to customer, vendor or service provider inquiries.”
• “Writes checks, balances and reconciles checkbook and properly notes all debits and credits in appropriate financial records.”
• “Work to solve customer concerns/complaints that come in via telephone, email or in person.”

The point here is to detail the tasks the person is going to perform, for whom they are going to perform them and the frequency with which they are going to perform them. For example, it’s not enough to say “Take orders and talk with customers,” because it doesn’t say how the person will take orders and talk with customers. Saying, “Take orders using a Dell Model xyz computer running Windows XP and Great Plains ERP system” is not only a silly level of detail, but not a good idea. What happens when you change to another computer system? You have to change the job description, of course. What happens when you have to hire a new customer service person and they know how to use Great Plains but not Wonderful Beaches and they say “But it says Great Plains in the job description?” That’s why something like “Work to solve customer concerns/complaints that come in via telephone, e-mail or in person,” is best. Be general about the WHAT of the work, but not the HOW of the work.

If the job requires decision making or supervision of others, those areas of responsibility should be highlighted in the job description. If the “Accounting Manager” is going to make the decision to extend credit to a customer, the job description could read:

• “Evaluate credit applications and make decision on credit authorizations for all customers.”

If there is a dollar limit at which you do not want the Accounting Manager to authorize a credit limit, you can say

• “Evaluate credit applications and make decision on credit authorizations up to $5,000.”

That says, very clearly, what the limits of that person’s responsibility are, and what you expect from them. In the event that you ever wanted to discipline or terminate a person for a specific infraction, in this case such as issuing credit over $5,000, having something this specific can really help. (A quick disclaimer on that point, you cannot expect a court of law to uphold a termination in which you used something like the above example as a reason to fire someone if you let the person routinely offer credit over $5000 and only decided to fire them the one time the person to whom the credit was issued turned out to be a deadbeat. The court system takes a terribly dim view of that attitude in employment law situations.)

The Duties and Responsibilities area should list at least five specifics, and possibly up to ten. 

Yes, you can make the job description as long as you want, but putting in too much detail is just as bad as not enough detail, either scenario causes problems. Any entry or mid level job that cannot be captured in a one or two page job description is probably more work than any one person can do.


The final piece of the job description puzzle is qualifications. This is the area in which you get to quantify what education, professional certification or previous job experience you require in your employee. It’s also an area that can come back to haunt you, so you must be very specific when creating qualifications. I find it’s best to think about that perfect employee who has 100 percent of the education, experience and characteristics for the job. That person doesn’t exist, of course, but it’s helpful to imagine all that you want and scale back. Let’s go back to our “Office Administrator” as an example and decide what skills that person must have. Well, they have to be proficient in commonly used computer applications, familiar with commonly used office machines such as faxes and copiers, communicate clearly in person, over the phone and in writing with other departments, stay cool under pressure and have a great customer service ethic. They should have at least 2 years experience as an administrative or executive assistant, and be able to work occasional overtime, be able to represent your company well in person, in writing and over the phone, they should be flexible, adaptable and professional and be able to keep appropriate information totally confidential. So how would we quantify that?

How about the following:

• Strong and proven skills in Word, Excel or comparable computer programs.

• Exceptional customer service and problem solving skills.

• A minimum of 2 years experience in an administrative assistant or executive assistant position.

• Able to maintain and troubleshoot office machines such as faxes, copiers and printers.

• Able to communicate effectively with customers, co-workers and potential customers verbally and in writing.

• Previous experience in a high-pressure environment is a significant plus.

• This position requires the ability to work a shift that begins at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m., with occasional overtime or weekend work.

• A high school education or the equivalent is required; an Associates degree is a plus.

• Ability to maintain absolute confidentiality is a must.

And, finally, what physical requirements are there in this job? Well, sitting in front of a computer terminal is implied, and doesn’t need to be stated, but what about the “Able to maintain and troubleshoot office machines such as faxes, copiers and printers” piece? Does that require the ability to lift a certain amount of weight onto a counter? The ability to lift reams of paper? You must think about the particular physical requirements this position has and include them in your job description. For example, if you don’t put in the job description that our Office Administrator also has to go into a warehouse and use a pallet jack to get office materials and supplies on a regular basis, you are not setting the proper expectation with your employee, and you are possibly opening yourself up for an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit. We are not ADA experts, and the ADA is not generally a law that very small employers have to be concerned with, as the rules only apply to companies with more than 15 employees, but there is no reason to have a job description that does not accurately describe the physical requirements of the job.

You can be a bit crafty about how you word things, for example, you don’t want to say, “Must have had no back injuries and be strong enough to carry lots of heavy stuff.” You can’t say that, it’s illegal and discriminatory, not to mention exceptionally poor employee relations. What you can say is this: “Must have the ability to pick up and lift to waist height 75 pounds on a regular basis” or “This position requires the ability to lift and carry up to 30 pounds occasionally.”

So, 2915 (give or take) words later, you have the critical elements of the job description. We realize they are a lot of work, and you may feel as if you don’t “need” to write one, but, in addition to a document that can help an employee to understand your requirements, seeing the reaction of the person you are interviewing when they read the job description can be very enlightening. Say you are interviewing for that “Office Administrator,” and when they get to the part about going into the warehouse her little nose wrinkles, her eyes narrow and she says, “I have to go into the warehouse? I’m an office person, I don’t know about that.” This gives you a hint as wide as Texas about that person’s mentality and attitude towards their co-workers. They think manufacturing people are icky, and don’t see themselves as a team player. My advice to you would be to run, not walk, away from that kind of attitude. Conversely, if you have a shipping and receiving worker who says “I have to deliver UPS packages to office people? I hate going up there.” you’ve got yourself a person who thinks all office people are lazy and is just as poor a team player, and we’d bolt from that one too.

We’ll end this missive with an apocryphal story about the last line of any job description. This old saw has been in hiring circles for at least the past twenty years and the line of thinking goes something like this: You hire employee X, and they turn out to be a poor performer. You document the performance and fire them, thinking you are fine because you followed the rules about how to discipline and terminate an employee (and, no, we haven’t written that column yet, you’ll just have to stay tuned). Then good ole employee X sues you for wrongful discharge, claiming, among other things, that you made them do things that were not required in their job description. Judge Trudy sides with employee X and you pay out mucho dollars to a deadbeat who only got what they got because your job description was erroneous. Now we’ve never actually met anyone to whom this has happened, and we know a lot of business types, but, just to be on the safe side, we recommend the last line of the “Duties and Responsibilities” section of the job description read “Perform other duties as assigned,” which, conventional wisdom says, will help you to avoid nuisance lawsuits from former employees. Foolproof? Nope, not by a long shot, just an easy way to send the message that “Hey, there will be times when you will not be doing things that you may think don’t belong in your job description, but, since I’ve included this line, everything is now in your job description”.

A job description can be the beginning of a dialog between you and your employee, a marketing tool and a handy item at review time, and we hope we have convinced you of that. Some resources to use when writing a job description are below, or, you can always give us a jingle, and we’d be happy to further elucidate you on all things job descriptions. Next month’s topic is how to determine pay rates for employees, which, depending on whom you ask, is either a very accurate and highly scientific system that uses good data and time-honored methods of job classification methodology to determine the numbers or a whole load of hooey that employers use to keep wages low. Stay tuned to find out where the truth lies.

Some job description resources

The mother of all HR Web sites, this is the home page for the United States Department of Labor. Dense, multi-layered and absolutely daunting in its size, it is nonetheless a great resource if you take the time to wade through it.


The ADA Web site:


A good article on writing job descriptions, and a lot shorter than ours.


Ten good tips for writing a job description, again, much shorter than our article. Hmm, are we sensing a trend here?


This site, Free Management Library has complied a ton of resources for non-profit and for-profit companies. Additionally, they are even wordier than we are, so we kind of like them.


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