Gill Taylor: Getting job descriptions right saves a lot of grief

A lack of clarity is also demotivating for employees, writes our columnist

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

A recent study by the management consultancy the Hay Group, quoted in People Management, the journal of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, found that 51 per cent of HR managers believed poor job descriptions could give employees misleading expectations and ultimately drive them to leave; 68 per cent said they contributed to weak candidate pools; and 59 per cent believed they resulted in wasted time with irrelevant candidates who had the wrong skills.

Most respondents said that good job descriptions led to better candidates. But 42 per cent believed the quality of job descriptions drafted in their organisations was poor, and 79 per cent agreed that getting good job descriptions from managers was time-consuming.

These figures are from the private sector, but my experience is that the third sector is no better at crafting this essential document. On average, voluntary organisations experience staff turnover rates of about 16 or 17 per cent a year. Although we don't actually cost this, it's going to be at least £2,500 per vacancy in direct and indirect recruitment costs - often significantly more for skilled managers or directors.

It's desperately important to get job descriptions right. They form the basis of recruitment but also of supervision, outcomes, appraisals and team-working. They are used in job evaluation and salary banding and can be used to make an argument in grievances and disciplinary action. A lack of clarity is also demotivating for employees and affects engagement and loyalty to the organisation. This has a knock-on effect for teams, which are likely to perform better when members have accurate, up-to-date records of their roles.

Writing a good job description that fits into the organisational map of roles and responsibilities is a critical task. It is usually driven by the individual line manager at the point of recruitment - and therein lies the key problem. The line managers are busy, they are not good at understanding how to write these job descriptions and they are tempted by jargon.

I could scream at some of the person specifications I see, such as these ones I read on a charity job site one morning: "strong ability to steward internally and externally"; "person with a sense of possibility"; and "considerable cross-functional contribution". What is a person looking for a job meant to make of these? The temptation is to laugh and throw the job description away.

It's tantamount to burning the organisation's money. So please take some time and respect the HR function. Think hard about why it's a good idea to write good job descriptions and meaningful, testable and measurable person specifications. It will make your job easier in the long run.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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