Writing Useful Job Descriptions

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NZ employment law requires that all employees must have a description to accompany their employment agreement. Many employers don’t realise this. Others write aspirational job descriptions as they embark on their recruitment process, but promptly forget about them once positions are filled. Over time – and sometimes very quickly in these COVID times – job descriptions become out-of-date, or even obsolete. This can pose a legal risk for the well-meaning, busy employer.

Amending and/or updating job descriptions

Business needs change. Over the past few years we have certainly found out how agile a business must be to survive.  You may have to change an employee’s responsibilities and you can do so within reason if you have a clause in their employment agreement which allows for natural and moderate evolution of a position. However significant changes – generally accepted to be 20% or more – must be:

  1. Justifiable;
  2. Follow a good faith process of consultation and mutual agreement; and
  3. Be reflected in a change to the employment agreement.

Please note: changing a job description without following this process could mean your employee has grounds for a personal grievance. This was highlighted in a recent case when a man was hired as a waiter but then asked to cook. Equally, changing the role of your employee without capturing it in a job description can also give cause for a grievance.

To detail or not to detail, that is the question

Having a broad-brush description of the work you want your employee to do (as opposed to a specific list of tasks and activities) can minimise the need to regularly follow a change process and update the JD. It follows this reduces the risk that the description is quickly out of date. It also protects the business owner from things you want your staff member to attend to found missing from your detailed list of expectations. How many of us have known the frustration of managing an employee who points to their JD when they are asked to do a new task and declares “That’s not in my job description!”?

Conversely, having more detailed descriptions definitely increase your management arsenal and can support quality recruitment, improve business operations and reflect the values that are important to your business. They can also provide a useful tool in performance management. When a job description is used in a disciplinary process as evidence the employee hasn’t done as agreed, there really isn’t anywhere to hide when the list is clear, specific and accurate.

The Job Description (very handy in recruitment)

The more accurate the job description is, the better it will be at attracting quality candidates and assisting the recruitment process from start to finish. While good candidates for vacancies are at a premium, this is something you can do to improve your chances at finding a good recruit.

Depending on the role and the capacity you have in your business to keep up with any changes, accurate and detailed JDs could be your secret weapon as you position to attract your next recruit. We recommend developing a person specification with relevant skills, experience, or qualifications that are vital for the role. Include this in your recruitment process and documentation. Your job descriptions then help demonstrate that there are legitimate, non-discriminatory considerations used in the hiring process.

More detailed descriptions can also support onboarding. A well-considered and detailed document helps your new team member understand exactly what they’ve been hired to do. Further, well-written descriptions can help establish expectations about the culture and values in your business and assist with ongoing performance development.

What to leave out

At FixHR we do not suggest job descriptions should cover everything. For example, we don’t recommend that KPIs (Key Performance Indicators, or targets) or OKRs (Objective Key Results, for when targets are less measurable) are included in descriptions. We prefer to see these sitting in separate performance review documentation that can be tailored to business and individual employee needs and reviewed regularly. (More on the debate of annual versus regular performance reviews another time!) And beware of including personal characteristics or behaviours in your JDs and person specifications as these may not truly reflect what is needed for the role. There is a risk of showing bias or even discrimination which of course is what we are trying to avoid.

Whether you keep your descriptions short and snappy or more specific and detailed, make sure you take the time to ensure your team all have accurate job descriptions. Contact us if you would like a copy of our HR Must-Haves Checklist.

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