Formulating Effective Job Descriptions - Principles and General Procedures


Basics of formulating a job description

A job description has to be an integral part of the work of human resources group in an organisation. It is necessary to write job descriptions for every position in the organisation. There is a need to differentiate out between internal and external jobs.

Internal Job Descriptions Versus External Job Descriptions: There are internal job descriptions that are for insider use only and there are external job descriptions that will be read by prospective candidates. The former is very thorough and complete. The latter is an abridged version of the internal job description, typically with more of a marketing touch to it.

High Level Objective of a Job Description: Many different people use a job description, but the main objective is that it should provide a comprehensive picture of the purpose, requirements and context of the job. To do that, it needs to be written clearly in simple language, contain information but not opinions or judgements, and avoid using words with “company specific” meanings. A well-written comprehensive job description for a management position might typically be about three to five pages in length.

The following tips are designed to help write a “good” job description.´

  1. Date Completed: date when the job description was completed.
  2. Job Title / Position title: Create and list a title for the job that bears some resemblance to the actual function of the job. It is not always enough to call people a consultant or an associate. The title and the position specification should express a unified vision for the role and its responsibilities.
  3. Reporting Relationship: Name the position to whom this role will report and what positions, if any, this role will supervise. Are there secondary, or dotted-line reporting relationships involved? Are there dual-reporting relationships, perhaps administrative and functional? Give the prospective employee a sense of place in the organisation. It should be clear to the prospective employee what rung on the corporate ladder they might occupy. On the other hand, if the organisation has a flat structure, this should also be conveyed.
  4. Prepared By: Name of individual(s) preparing the description.
  5. System of approval and approved by: Name of individual who has final approval and budgetary authority. In addition, it would be important to highlight the general procedure for approval so that the process is transparent for both the employer and employee.
  6. Work Schedule: Reference could be made to the need to actual working hours. In the event that regular overtime will be required and work during the weekends special mention of this should be made here.
  7. Job Objectives: A brief description that summarizes the function of the position within the department.
  8. Key Responsibilities: This is the heart of the job description and describes clearly and concisely the essential duties and responsibilities of the position. Key points to remember:
    • List the key areas of responsibility in descending order, with the responsibility requiring the most amount of time or of greatest importance coming first. A position will be classified based on the emphasis of the job’s function, not the importance or perceived value of that particular function.
    • Describe duties and responsibilities as they presently exist or are expected to exist. If preparing a description for a new position, the department should feel relatively comfortable that the proposed duties and function of the position are accurately represented.
    • Make use of information contained in trainer needs assessments or in organisational review studies and reports. These describe the type of job profiles that will be required by the organisation.
  9. Non-Essential Functions: This section lists parts of the job that are not essential
  10. Experience: There is a need to define the experience that is necessary to do the job. Specifically, what should an employee know in order to fulfil the expectations and meet the basic requirements of the job. Consider each element of the position’s responsibilities, and whether carrying out these responsibilities requires previous experience. The precise skills and knowledge necessary to do a job well may not be apparent to all employees. By setting the criteria the organisation can ensure that everyone is speaking the same language and has the same understanding. This can prevent misunderstandings, and mistakes in hiring.
  11. Competencies: The competencies that are necessary to do the job successfully and work within the team and the organisation properly have to be clearly defined. Competencies are also referred to as ‘soft skills’ - the abilities to communicate, adapt easily to new situations, solve problems, and make strategic decisions are all competencies. This section focuses on the knowledge, skills, and abilities, including specific physical and mental abilities, where relevant, that are necessary to perform the tasks identified. To satisfy legal requirements, specific physical and/or mental requirements that are essential parts of the job (lifting, standing for extended periods of time, attention to detail, hearing, carrying, moving, pushing/pulling, climbing, etc.), should be described clearly and precisely and should include frequency.
  12. All descriptions should include the following statement: “Note: The organisation reserves the right to change or reassign job duties, or combine positions at any time.”
  13. Job Location Duty Station: The location where the employee will typically report. This section should also include the following statement, “Travel within our district service area as well as other organisation areas in neighbouring districts will (or may) be required.”
  14. Compensation Range: Highlights how much the position pays. In Government organisations this is determined by the Government pay scales. In other organisations it is determined according to the available budget, the market, the benefits the organisation can offer, and the salaries of other employees to determine how much the position should be paid. While the compensation range for the position need not be publicised, it is a critical element of the position specification as it may serve to disqualify potential candidates, and may prevent a lot of wasted time spent on candidates who would never agree to the terms of the salary. It can also weed out candidates who make too little at their current job.
  15. Equipment: List the equipment that the employee will use in the course of their job, e.g., PCs, printers, copiers, fax machine, etc.

Reality Check

At the end of it all a reality check has to be undertaken. The following questions could be used for this process:

  • Can the work be realistically completed in a normal working day?
  • Are the tasks assigned realistically possible within the given frame conditions and the institutional setting?
  • To what extent does the job description reflect the “impossible” and can activities be delegated to other professionals?
  • Have different job descriptions been compared with each other and duplications and redundancies removed from each job description (streamlining)?


Some useful hints for writing sentences for job descriptions:

  • Use clear and concise language.
  • Use words that have a single meaning.
  • Use examples / explanations for words which have varying interpretations
  • Use non-technical language whenever possible. A good job description explains the objectives, duties, and responsibilities of a job so that they are understandable even to a layperson.
  • Use telegraphic sentence style (implied subject / verb / object / explanatory phrase). Avoid unnecessary words.
  • Keep sentence structure as simple as possible; omit all words that don’t contribute necessary information.
  • Begin each sentence with an active verb, always use the present tense.
  • Whenever possible, describe the desired outcome of the work, rather than the method for accomplishing that outcome. For example, instead of “writes down phone messages”- a task-oriented approach – one might say “accurately records phone messages”.
  • Avoid words, such as “handles,” that don’t tell specifically what the employee does. Others one may want to avoid: “checks,” “prepares,” “examines,” “sends.” If these words are the most accurate and specific ones available, it may be acceptable to use them. But if a more specific term would describe the task more clearly, use it.
  • Use generic terms instead of proprietary names (“MS-Word” “Windows,” etc.).
  • Avoid using gender based language.
  • Qualify whenever possible. Don’t just say that a file clerk “files” materials; say that she/he “files alphabetically.”

Final Check: When the Job-Description has been completed, check:

  • The layout
  • Spelling
  • That the wording makes sense and the job is well explained
  • That there is no unnecessary jargon
  • That the facts are correct and complete check against the checklist


The following guiding questions can be used in order to undertake the preliminary job description. By answering the questions the writer is helped to ensure that all of the main points that need to be encompassed in a good job description are taken into consideration. The questionnaire should not be seen as being exhaustive, there will be other elements necessary and these will vary from between organisations.


Figure 1: Guiding questions for Job Descriptions