Create a Great Job Description Without a Template

9 min read
how to create great job descriptions

Yes, You Need a Job Description

Whenever there’s a need to increase your output, execute faster, replace lost KSAs (knowledge, skills, and Abilities), or delegate key business functions, there is a set of core requirements captured in a job description. Those requirements form the basis for what comes next, which is generally to hire someone as soon as possible. Too many companies work through this process sub-optimally, which leads to some stressful problems down the line.

Here is a set of examples:

The Startup Example

We know how to build great teams; we’re not first-time founders. While we silently acknowledge that we are hiring in uncharted territory for us, we decide to ask around in our network for someone with the right stuff. We created a no-nonsense job description and sent it out to our network. We found that we’re not getting people with the right experience, either too “corporate” or too deep in the industry. We don’t just want to hire folks let go by our competitors, we want truly top talent who are a good fit. But it’s taking too long and we’re getting frustrated.

tech startup founder
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woman fashion house entrepreneur
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The Small Business Example

I’m really good at what I do, and this business would not have survived the economic crisis if I were not. I know I need a very talented team, and each hire needs to be as good as me. Fast forward to now, I have tried to replicate the best parts of myself in hires, but they never seem to pan out. I don’t know what I’m missing; we have good pay and benefits, and a strong process for onboarding and training. But they never know as much as me or work as hard as me, and that makes my business that much more difficult to run.

These stories are from two specific examples, but they are very common, and unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis is exposing gaping holes in talent attraction, retention, and management strategy for companies, exacerbating the struggles. Smaller teams cannot afford the cost of a “bad hire.” More specifically, the value added by learning how to create great job descriptions through analysis and alignment is quantifiably better than just slapping KSAs on a template.

Analyze the Role

First, let us revisit a previous assumption. A job requisition leads to a need to hire an employee, but, is that really what we need?

  1. Return to the source of the request and ask the person a series of questions. Perhaps a new hire is not the best option. Would the role work better as an independent contractor or outsourced to an agency? You may not yet want to entrust a core business component to a “new hire” which is not being supported by systems, technology, and a knowledge repertoire. What is the level of “permanence” of the role? Is a temp hire more in line with the requirement? Alternatively, you may want to open up the role to existing team members.
  2. You likely find yourself on the other end of a negotiation for new talent, in which people just want to see the numbers. You should select an analysis methodology, and budgeting techniques in line with expectations from your finance department, as financial standards guiding the requisition of a new functional role.

During your role analysis, require the stakeholders requesting the role to really think deeply about why they need the role. Is someone close to burnout? Is production near or at capacity?

This is a good opportunity to unleash the “consultant” in you and have them provide you with a solid business case for the role. Usually, a few of the requisitions will be withdrawn without a sufficient business case for new hires, some may be referred to someone in procurement to work with an agency, and the rest will power forward with a unified vision for the role’s expectations, across the organization.

Create a Great Job Description

So how do you create a job description that gets results? Creating an effective job description for People Operations is different from traditional HR, as it must stand up to scrutiny and will be reviewed and revised periodically by stakeholders outside of HR. An optimal job description includes all the following:

  • Culture: Communicates to the job seekers the key aspects of what it’s like to work at the company, and the work environment of the role.
  • Team Dynamics: Describes traits required to work well with the existing team, while also bringing something unique to the dynamic of the team.
  • KSAs: Shows what are “pay-to-play” requirements for the role, and which are preferred qualities based on hard evidence. Examples include certifications, ability to perform a task without supervision, and a verifiable record of negotiation.
  • Performance: Speaks to the factors that most contribute to success in the role. For new roles, you may not have enough information to determine what is a success factor, but at the minimum, you will need to determine how success in the role is defined at its most basic level.
  • Compensation: Describes the way someone in the role is compensated (salary range, grades, or steps), including benefits and perks, and the main circumstances upon which compensation should be increased.

A job description template does none of these effectively.

Writing a Job Description

First, you take the feedback from the job role analysis, and build it into the core elements of the description (Classification, Summary, and Specification). Do your best to keep from writing a rigid job description, as this hinders digital transformation and deters candidates who enjoy opportunities to innovate

Job Classification

You cannot get the classification wrong. The U.S. Department of Labor requires that you are explicit about these details, and job sites will tear down your job ad if misleading or insufficient classification is detected. The classification answers the following FLSA questions:

  1. Employee or Independent Contractor?
  2. Part time or full time?
  3. Salary or Hourly, and then the follow up question: Overtime exempt, or non-exempt?

Job Summary

This segment describes the primary duties and day to day responsibilities of the role. This is the part that usually gets copied and pasted from templates, but it should really reflect the view from the company. This is why you collected those very specific and important duties from the other stakeholders of the role during analysis. You plug in the key duties of the employee as described by those who did the job before, leaving room for additional responsibilities that crop up. List them in order of importance.

Job Specification

This segment describes the ideal background for someone who would succeed in this role, with KSAs and behavioral traits. This is where you would place the requirements for physical demands, the minimum qualifications, and the success factors that defines high performance. Do not stuff this with “years of experience” requirements, although many job sites operate sub-optimally and use this to “knock out” candidates.

Nail down the ideal candidate

In addition, we’re using the specification to describe a target audience for this job description, people with talent who would find the role appealing. Thus, our job specification is essentially a persona used to cast a net and attract potential candidates, and also in the internal job description, to provide competencies that would need to be at a certain level before consideration for a promotion to the next level, or a merit pay increase.

One note about this section of the job description. Defining success factors of a job is tricky. You want to replicate successful employees, but you don’t want carbon copies, because homogeneous teams decline over time. You can do this by leaving out or revising the sections that are traditionally found here in job description templates to be more inclusive:

  • Required Education Level (to the extent that is possible)
  • Language Requirements (if they are not necessary)
  • Commute and Travel (if remote working is a possibility)
Instead, focus on what the candidate will do. Focusing on what they must complete, achieve, or manage and how often, connects the job description back to the mission and keeps it focused on performance, rather than qualities. Some KSAs may be “pay-to-play,” and that’s okay. Include them as absolutely necessary, as success really does come down to a few key factors. 
All Experience is Not Built the Same

Applicant Tracking System (ATS) vendors will tell you to specify desired years of experience in the job ad. While ATSs do in fact use this data to screen applicants, you run the risk of turning away people who ascended quickly in their careers with very “meaty” experience in the role for which you’re hiring.

Not all experience is built the same, that is, the level of qualification is not easily determined by the number of years spent doing a job.

  • Under what circumstance would you want to hire someone to this role without the minimum years of experience?
  • How condensed, rigorous, consistent, diverse, and involved was the work during these years?
  • Under what circumstance would you reject someone who meets the years of experience threshold you set?

Ask yourself: who is more qualified, a staff software engineer with 20 years experience in a single firm with aging technology infrastructure, or a software engineer with 10 years of experience at top companies working on many high impact projects?

The answer is most likely, the second candidate. But the fact is that this is not a simple “yes” or “no” answer speaks to the reliability of “years of experience” as a barometer for qualification. It only leads to more questions, and that can waste people’s time, especially when you can get those same answers in a more direct method.

In Conclusion - Maintaining Your Job Descriptions

Once you have performed a job analysis, it is a good idea to review descriptions periodically. Performance review is an opportunity to collect details about needed changes to the role. It’s also a good idea to have this same analysis done for each role in the company to ensure that everyone is aligned with the C-Suite in what’s expected of them. It is time consuming at first, but becomes a matter of maintenance moving forward, as bringing focus back to the job description provides a basis for performance assessment, talent development, and compensation.

And remember, copy paste is no way to compete for talent in the marketplace of skills and knowledge.