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Job Description

A compliant job description is a strategic tool used to support many critical HR and recruiting decisions. Its main purpose is to identify all of the job requirements and qualifications needed, but it may also be used externally for recruiting.

What is a Job Description?

A compliant job description is a strategic tool used to support many critical HR and recruiting decisions. Its main purpose is to identify all of the job requirements and qualifications needed, but it may also be used externally for recruiting.

Job descriptions may be used both internally and externally, so it’s imperative to ensure they’re accurate. Ideally, it’s created from data gathered as a result of a job analysis that identifies all the components of a job.

Possibly the most critical term used on a job description is “essential functions.” This is a common legal term used to determine the actual job requirements rather than subjective or arbitrary requirements.

It describes all of the preferred qualifications and requirements, including:

  • Scope, title and employment classification
  • Essential and nonessential functions
  • Required and preferred knowledge and educational qualifications
  • Years of experience required
  • Physical requirements and working conditions
  • Supervisory responsibilities
  • Certification or licensing requirements
  • EEO or Affirmative Action (if required) statement

History of Job Descriptions

According to job description creator Ongig, before there were job descriptions, there were “help wanted” signs at the local business.

In the early 1990s, the internet made job boards possible. Companies like Monster and CareerBuilder used job ads or job postings to advertise jobs for client companies.

The later development of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) empowered employers to manage their own job ads and reduce their reliance on job boards.

Next generation job descriptions are more widely used today and include the ability for interactivity including social networking, video ads and other technological advancements.

Why are Job Descriptions Important?

Job descriptions are a fundamental tool for HR. Staffing, performance evaluations, compensation, and many other HR decisions and programs rely on job descriptions. They also inform the employee of the criteria that their performance will be rated against.

But they must be reviewed periodically to ensure that they are up-to-date and valid. It’s advisable to perform a review of all job descriptions in the organization annually, if not more often. After the job analysis, the job description may be one of the next documents that HR audits.

When legal decisions like layoffs, terminations, or job changes are based on compliant job descriptions, they serve as a defense in the event of a legal challenge.

Job descriptions provide the validation necessary for decisions involving:

  • Performance evaluations. Performance should be aligned to the stated expectations
  • Compensation. Pay increases may be impacted by performance evaluations
  • Employment actions. Job descriptions provide data to support disciplinary action, termination, mandatory training or other corrective actions

Using job descriptions for more than just hiring

Job descriptions are a multi-function tool for HR. In addition to describing the duties of a job for hiring purposes, they:

  • Align an employee’s performance to the essential functions
  • Benchmark wages against salary survey data
  • Assist in identification of reasonable accommodations

Job Description Sample Outline

The design of a job description can vary significantly because the look is not as important as the content. Some companies use a formal, standardized outline. Others may use company specific information like a mission or values statement, logos, or infographics.

Regardless of the design, job descriptions should always contain the recommended elements to ensure compliance.

Section #1: Job specifics

Contains job title, reporting information, and department. It may also contain FLSA status (Exempt or Non-Exempt), effective date and sometimes pay.

Section #2: Job summary

A brief but interesting and informative summary of the position and its contributions to the company’s mission. Use generally understood terms whenever possible to avoid confusion.

Section #3: Tasks and responsibilities

Details about the duties and responsibilities are one of the most critical areas in the whole document. Clearly describe the essential functions of the job in order to ensure that it is legally defensible.

Make a clear distinction between essential and nonessential functions in the event that a reasonable accommodation is needed.

An article in SHRM’s HR magazine quotes a representative from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division who states that the department focuses on the work actually performed. “It’s what people do, not what’s on paper” that matters to them.

Section #4: Qualifications

Includes the number of years of experience, skills or ability needed to perform tasks and the educational qualifications. As with the job functions, there may be required qualifications and preferred qualifications.

A note of caution. Many organizations list a degree as a requirement. But this is an area that can be challenged if a degree is not generally required by a regulatory requirement, such as an M.D.

The remainder of the form includes information about working conditions, physical demands, work authorizations or security requirements, EEO/Affirmative Action/Diversity and Inclusion requirements or commitments, or an Other Duties as Required list.

Finally, there should be a statement about the employee’s understanding of the document and their dated signature, along with dated signatures by HR and the direct manager.

How to Write a Job Description

  1. Perform a job analysis
  2. Determine essential and nonessential functions and the job summary
  3. Review and organize additional information needed
  4. Include all legally required information and signature and date lines
  5. Seek feedback, revise as necessary and implement

Step #1: Job Analysis

Review or perform a job analysis that identifies the purpose of the job and contains all of the elements necessary to produce a thorough and legally compliant job description.

Step #2: Job Functions

Label and list all of the essential and nonessential functions. Make a clear distinction between the two concepts. The language should be brief but comprehensive.

Step #3: Organize the Data

Ensure that preferred and mandatory elements are included and organize it into a document that is clear, concise and logically organized. Add an employee statement of understanding and date and signature lines for all parties.

Step #4: Review and Finalize

Ensure all involved parties have reviewed the job description and given their approval to proceed or make necessary adjustments. Meet with the employee and manager to review, discuss and obtain signatures and commitment.

How to access hundreds of sample job descriptions for free

Choose reliable sources from among the hundreds of samples available:

  • O*Net OnLine — occupational site with sample job descriptions and pay rates
  • Ongig — how-tos plus analysis of job descriptions from actual companies
  • Indeed — numerous samples but the descriptions are somewhat less standardized than other sites.

Why You Need to be Careful About Using Job Description Templates

Sample templates vary significantly in structure, information and quality. Some use job description and job posting interchangeably. You can create a job posting from the description, but it does not take the place of a compliant job description.

It’s best to start with a reputable source and modify from there.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Job Descriptions

How can I make a job description more appealing?
There are a lot of things you can do to improve your job description. Consider some of these: 1) Write a story about the job and how it impacts the organization’s mission and values. 2) Provide a “day-in-the-life” viewpoint. 3) Use employee or community commentary about the company as appropriate. 4) Use color, infographics, or a different presentation of the information to make it visually interesting. 5) Ensure that it contains all of the information that objectively outlines the job expectations for the employee, and legal language to protect the organization.
How long should a job description be?
The length of a job description is not as important as what it contains. It’s best to write it as briefly but comprehensively as necessary in generally one or two pages.
What is the difference between a job description and a job analysis?
A job analysis forms the basis for writing a job description and is generally an internal document that determines the components of a job including: 1) Purpose of the job 2) Functions necessary for successful performance 3) Knowledge, skills, abilities 4) Amount of effort required 5) Physical demands 6) Decision-making responsibilities 7) Reporting and supervisory structure 8) Job fit The job description may be used for both internal and external purposes and includes: 1) Essential and nonessential functions 2) Working conditions 3) Physical demands 4) Legally compliant statements 5) Signatures and dates
What is the difference between a job description and a job specification?
The job description focuses on the essence of the job itself. Job specifications focus on the qualifications needed to perform the job and are technically included within a job description. The terms job posting, job description and job specification are frequently (and incorrectly) used interchangeably. A job posting may contain elements of the job and the qualifications needed but it is usually a shortened version designed for recruiting purposes. It’s generally safest to have standardized, documented, and compliant job descriptions to ensure that employees clearly understand job expectations.
Beth Campagno

Beth Campagno

Beth has many years of corporate HR and business experience in a variety of business environments. She found her second career writing a wide variety of HR content (DE&I, thought leadership, blog articles, eBooks, case studies, and more) for HR SaaS companies.

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