April 20, 2018
Hiring 20 December 2017
Job Descriptions: Write Hard and Clear about What Hurts
Wendy Dailey
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There are thousands of posts and books about how to write a job description -- I know because I've looked at a lot of them! Looking for the key, the magic trick to make your job descriptions understandable, complete, concise yet not 100 pages long can be difficult.

I write job descriptions and the format we use is awful -- extremely long and full of fancy words to make someone in an office somewhere who doesn't understand what we do decide what the job should be paid. And I'm pretty sure no one really reads their job description -- well they read it at least once in my department because we make them read it prior to their interview.

As I write the job descriptions, I keep thinking that there has to be a better way. And there is, but you need to go one step back before even writing. It's looking at your organization and deciding that this is a position you need.


Writing down the Pain Points

Earnest Hemingway once said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." That's exactly what you need to do here. What are the pain points for your organization and how does this position ease that pain? Can you articulate this position's reason for being beyond the standard "we've always had this role"? 

This is not an easy exercise. People can and will feel threatened. We like what we know and change makes us feel like maybe we've been doing things wrong. So we need to approach this carefully: It's not that things were wrong in the past, it's just a good time to be sure it is still the right thing.


The Job description process

In my office, we were recently given another position to support our accounting staff - without asking for one [I know right? Unheard of!]. With a brand new position and little direction, we had to figure out what this role would do. So, I talked to the accounting supervisor and we used a method similar to succession planning to simplify the process.

  • We talked about what was and wasn't getting done, where were her pain points that another person could solve. 
  • We looked at her job description and those of her other direct reports. 
  • We created an outline of which role had which responsibilities or support duties. 

From there, we were able to write a solid job description and defend our choices to those "higher-ups" when they questioned the direction we had chosen to go. 


Shrinking the Candidate pool

We want to be able to write the job ad in such a way that shrinks our candidate pool  -- which I know you might be thinking, "aren't we supposed to cast the widest net possible in order to find that right person"? Yes we do, but we also want people to be able to self-select out early in the process. 

For example, if we want someone who has accounting experience with construction projects, do we really want a tax accountant to waste their time completing our (admittedly) frustrating online application, rewriting their resume/cover letter, only to have us eliminate them from our process right away (but probably not let them know until much later in our process)? 

Writing a specific job description with detailed requirements will go a long way to finding the perfect match for your organization, all while saving frustration for everybody involved, recruiters and candidates alike.


Fit the right people to the right job seat

We are still in the middle of negotiating our own accounting position, but I feel a lot more confident than usual that we will be able to find the right person for this seat because we are actually making sure we have the right seat first. Now, you might not have a new position with which to try this, but I suggest you try it with the next opening. Review the seats - not the people - the seats, what are the pain points and how can this role help fix those pain points? 

Take the time now, before you have someone in the role or are searching for that role, and you will save yourself headaches down the road. [Psst: You can also do this if you have a strong team in place and they are up for the challenge, but I really recommend starting with an open spot to avoid hurt feelings, or worse, someone thinking their job might be eliminated!]


Help everyone see the bigger picture

Most of the time through writing proper job descriptions for all existing positions, you will be better able to articulate how all roles fit into the organization. If YOU understand it, you can then help your staff understand it better which will benefit everybody as a whole. 

At our university, our grounds-keeping staff never quite felt like they were part of the big picture until their Director told them that students make their final decision on a campus based on how the campus looks. Now the grounds-keeping staff has pride in what our campus looks like and it has never looked better! 

THIS is employee engagement! This is what you want for all your staff and it is up to you as he leader or manager to help them see the importance of their role. Everybody has a part to play!


So the next time you have an opening, stop before you automatically repost your old job ad again. Take time to review the team the opening is on. Talk to the hiring manager about what you are doing and get them on board. Ask questions like:

  • What already exists and what still is needed? 
  • Is there work not getting done? 
  • Can you articulate or back up what's not getting done? 
  • Do you still need this position or do you need something else? 

After answering these questions, Review the position description and update it with what you've discovered. Take the time now and you will save time in the long run, I promise!


Wendy Dailey is an HR Business Partner in South Dakota. With almost 20 years of experience in human resources, she has worked in a variety of industries including construction, airlines, banking, and healthcare. Wendy is active in her local SHRM group, DisruptHR and in the #HRTribe on Twitter. She is co-host of the #HRSocialHour podcast and twitter chat. Wendy was named to the 2018 SHRM blogging team and writes for Workology, Prosky and on her Personal Blog: My Dailey Journey

In her spare time, Wendy enjoys spending time with her family and leading her daughters’ Girl Scout troops Connect with Wendy on Twitter.