One of my favorite workplace comics is a Dilbert cartoon where Wally asks the boss, “When will my raise be effective?” The boss answers, “The same time you are.” Poor Wally. Maybe he just doesn’t understand his job duties. How can Wally be effective if he doesn’t know what duties he is required to perform? Answer: He can’t. How can Wally get a grip on his job duties? Answer: A job description.

Accurate and detailed job descriptions are a vital part of an organization’s HR infrastructure. As companies develop, roles become refined, duties are more defined, and the organization obtains a better idea of the background skills, abilities and experiences necessary for success in the position. All of this should be captured in the job description.

Job descriptions play a vital role in many HR-related practices and, when properly written, can help bolster the company’s position when faced with work-related injuries, discrimination allegations, overtime exemption questions and other serious matters.

Comprehensive and well-worded job descriptions affect several key HR practices, such as:

  • Medical leave, FMLA, safety, and workers’ compensation — Any time an employee is injured on the job, requests a medical leave or encounters a medical condition that could impact job duties, the job description can be used by the physician to help determine any limitations or work-related restrictions. Often, these decisions are based on a conversation between the employee and the physician, with little or no input from the company. Physical and mental demands may be under- or overstated by the employee, leading to inaccurate work releases that either prolong the medical leave or raise the risk of reinjury. Job descriptions that accurately describe the physical and mental requirements for the position reduce liabilities by eliminating the potential for erroneous assessments of work limitations.
  • Compensation plans and rates of pay — Job descriptions that clearly state the essential job duties and background qualifications for a position (e.g., required or preferred education level and prior experience, skills and abilities) are necessary to obtain market rates for comparable positions in compensation surveys. They are also essential to conduct meaningful point-factor analyses for compensation plans. Without accurate and sufficiently detailed job descriptions, it is difficult to determine an appropriate pay rate and to ensure internal equity.
  • Department of Labor (DOL) and EEOC compliance — Job descriptions that accurately reflect and define the exempt nature of a given position can help the company meet the DOL’s burden of proof pertaining to overtime provisions. Additionally, job descriptions can help defend the company’s position related to hiring the most qualified candidate, equal pay or other discrimination allegations related to promotions, transfers and terminations.
  • Recruiting and hiring — Comprehensive job descriptions can be used to develop creative, accurate job postings. Detailed job descriptions that include the education, background skills, abilities, knowledge and prior experience required for the position also help managers develop meaningful interview questions based on job-related criteria. This, in turn, can impact the quality of the hiring decision and the candidate selected.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance — The Americans with Disabilities Act protects qualified individuals with disabilities who can perform essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. Job descriptions that accurately outline the essential job duties, specific qualifications and physical and mental requirements for the position help managers make accurate decisions related to a candidate’s qualification for a position, his or her ability to perform essential job functions and the potential for making reasonable accommodations before or after hire.
  • Training and development — Comprehensive job descriptions can be used as training tools to guide new employees. They can also be used as a baseline for managers when they evaluate performance, identify opportunities for improvement and refocus employees. Additionally, job descriptions can be used to enhance safety training and awareness.
  • Organizational development — As companies grow, updated job descriptions provide direction to hiring managers and are useful guides to assess productivity, spans of control, efficiency, staffing levels and alternatives for reporting relationships.
Detailed job descriptions can give employees confidence and clear direction in their jobs.
Photo: iSTOCK

To be effective, job descriptions should be accurately worded, legally compliant, detailed enough to provide a meaningful explanation of the essential job duties and written in a fashion that supports the organization’s culture, mission and philosophy. Just like hiring, there is an art and a science to writing effective job descriptions.

The best job descriptions do not describe how the job is done, nor do they define the performance standard required. The best job descriptions focus on essential job functions by clearly and concisely describing job duties, using a verb to start each sentence (e.g., “monitor,” “complete,” “oversee,” “coordinate” or “prepare”). They also include the following components: position summary (overall purpose of the position); minimum education or certification level required; background skills, abilities and qualifications (specify if required or preferred); essential job duties; physical and mental demands; typical work environment; equipment used; reporting relationships; and a disclaimer pertaining to employment at will.

Here’s an example of verbiage outlining the background skills, abilities and qualifications portion of an office manager job description:

“High school diploma required. College coursework in business or related field preferred. Minimum of three years’ experience in a supervisory administrative position required. Must be able to demonstrate successful track record of running an office, including supervision of employees and knowledge of payroll, accounts payable and receivable, profit/loss, and budgeting. Must be proficient in computer operations, spreadsheet applications, and data entry. High degree of accuracy required. Aptitude for numbers and strong analytical skills required. Must possess integrity and ability to maintain confidentiality. Professional image and ability to communicate with diplomacy and tact required. Must possess ability to operate general office equipment. Must be organized, flexible, friendly and exhibit a willing-to-please demeanor. Must possess strong written communication and follow-through skills.”

Get the idea? Writing job descriptions is time-consuming and takes a fair amount of detail, writing ability and job knowledge. If you’re not comfortable producing job descriptions that will (1) support your business (legally and otherwise), (2) communicate effectively with your employees (or potential employees), and (3) promote your organization’s culture and business objectives, get some help. Otherwise, you could end up with a bunch of “Wallys” at your business.

Jean is president of Seawright & Associates, a management consulting firm located in Winter Park, Florida. Since 1987, she has provided human resource management and compliance advice to employers across the country. She also consults with employer-members of trade associations, including, among others, The Garden Center Group. She can be contacted at 407-645-2433 or Note: The information in this article is not legal advice. For legal advice, readers should consult with an attorney.