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Job roles can be slippery fish. The employee thinks they’re responsible for ABC, but the manager thinks it’s XYZ. So how do we fix it?

Here’s the big secret: the
best vehicle for achieving role clarity is through position descriptions

I know, it’s not a very exciting prospect. And because of this, a lot of organisations don’t value position descriptions (PDs). All too often, position descriptions are created as part of an employment contract and once someone is hired no one ever looks at them again. Some organisations don’t even have them at all, the closest thing they have is the job ad.

All too often, position descriptions are created as part of an employment contract and no one ever looks at them again.

With these ad-hoc arrangements, it becomes difficult for everyone to be clear on the role, and to ensure that the employee and the employer have matching expectations. 

Below I’ll take you through the four key principles for creating position descriptions – ensuring clarity; keeping it simple; reviewing for bias; and establishing a process for review. But first, let’s look at some of the advantages of crafting killer position descriptions.

Why Bother with Position Descriptions?

I often have conversations with business owners who tell me things like:

  • I have a salesperson who isn’t selling
  • I have an executive assistant who doesn’t manage my diary
  • I have a marketing person who knows nothing about social media

My first question is always – do they actually know that this is part of their role

1. Remove confusion

I know that sounds a bit strange, but if you have a salesperson who isn’t selling, it’s important to ask yourself – what does selling mean to me? And equally to ask your salesperson – what does selling mean to you? Maybe to your employee, selling means just lead generation, or just closing. 

If you expect your salesperson to follow up leads by phone and email, to make presentations and arrange appointments, in addition to closing sales, you need to put this in the position description. It really helps with role clarity. 

2. Create KPIs

Once you have a position description, it’s easy to define key performance indicators. If my salesperson’s PD defines exactly what sales means in my organisation, I can easily assess my salesperson’s performance. For example, I might decide they need to be doing: 

  • X number of calls 
  • X number of emails 
  • X number of presentations 
  • X number of appointments 
  • X number of sales 

And once we have this clarified they know exactly what I expect. It’s also easy to manage and reward performance, which is a great way to get staff engaged and to increase your productivity. 

Top Tips for Excellent Position Descriptions

So let’s look at the four top ways of creating great position descriptions

1. Ensure Clarity

A clear written position description ensures everyone is on the same page.

✴ Clarify the requirements and responsibilities

Often position descriptions are too fuzzy to be useful. For example, in a sales manager position, the PD might say ‘the purpose of this role is to create great experiences for our customers and showcase our products’. But that’s a very high level that doesn’t get into the nitty gritties of the job. 

Instead, ensure there is a clear picture of the role requirements and responsibilities. This means:

  • removing any jargon
  • explaining any acronyms
  • staying away from motherhood statements.

✴ Test it outside the organisation

A great way to test the position description is to give it to a friend or a family member and ask them if they understand the responsibilities of the position. If somebody outside your business can pick it up and be quite clear on the purpose and requirements of the role you know you have a winner. 

2. Keep it simple

I often see long position descriptions that are a laundry list of tasks. They come from a sense that if something is not in the position description, the person doesn’t have to do it. This is simply not true, and it’s also a very old-school management idea that creates a negative culture in your workplace. 

Now, you might have someone who does complain at some point and say, ‘well, that’s not in my job description’. But there’s a concept in employment law known as ‘reasonable direction’, which enables me to ask for reasonable things without needing to spell them out in the position description. How does this work? 

✴ Reasonable direction

Suppose I have a position description for a salesperson that does not include the responsibility to physically visit clients. If I ask my salesperson to visit a client, is that a ‘reasonable direction’?

Well, if the client is in Sydney, and the salesperson is also in Sydney, then yes, it would probably be seen as reasonable for the salesperson to visit the client. However, if I ask my salesperson to visit a client in New Zealand, that may not be reasonable. They might say ‘I don’t want to travel overseas,’ ‘I don’t have a passport,’ ‘I have carer’s responsibilities,’ etc. That’s where it can become unreasonable

So you don’t have to have a laundry list of tasks in your position description if your expectations are ‘reasonable’. We want to keep it simple. 

✴ Key accountabilities

It’s also important to focus on the key accountabilities in your position descriptions. At Amplify HR, we recommend five to eight key accountabilities, and no more than 10. A key accountability is something that would account for at least 10% of an employee’s time. This means taking out the small details of the position.

For example, if my salesperson talks to the marketing manager once a month to get some social media statistics, that’s probably not going to be a key accountability. However, a key accountability may be that every month they prepare a report which includes social media data. 

✴ Action words

Each key accountability should be expressed in two to three sentences that start with an action word, like:

  • achieve 
  • arrange
  • build
  • invent
  • launch
  • evaluate
  • guide
  • provide 
  • recommend

You get the idea. In this way, you can keep the position description tight, clear, and simple

3. Review for bias 

It is very important that we write a position description for the role and not for the person. I know this can be difficult, but the position description is what the role is today. It’s not what the role should be in the future, and it’s not what the role was in the past when someone else was in it. 

✴ Analyse assumptions

A key part of this is to remove any information that may be seen to be biased toward particular groups. That may seem like an obvious thing, but I still often come across gendered descriptions, such as a storeman, in position descriptions, so you need to take those out.

✴ Don’t forget age

Remember our biases are not just around gender. One area that often comes up is around age, especially when we specify years of experience. 

I had a discussion with a leader recently, when we were looking at a job. He said, ‘we have specified that we need someone with significant experience, but how many years is that?’ I asked him, ‘would it matter if someone had three years of experience rather than 10? As long as they have everything else that matters to the job?’ He thought about that, and said ‘yeah, actually years of experience doesn’t matter. I need to be a bit more open-minded about people who have different skillsets’. 

The problem with putting years of experience into a job role is that we can be unconsciously biased toward a certain type of person, when someone else would be just as competent.

4. Keep position descriptions updated

If you do have position descriptions in your organisation, I would be very surprised if they are all up to date. There aren’t many companies that are very good at keeping a schedule of reviews. 

✴ Review Triggers

The easiest way that I have found to keep on top of this is to review the PD every time you advertise a job, and every time you review salaries

Hopefully, you review salaries at least once a year, even if you’re not giving a salary increase, you’re looking into whether you should. So that will mean that once a year, you have an opportunity to review the position descriptions and make sure they’re up to date. 

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