Job Descriptions: For What Purpose and For Whom?

Last week’s column focused on networking and how the networker can make contacts that may lead to potential employment. During the past week I have received a number of inquiries concerning job offers made by prospective employers to people they wish to hire. I found it interesting that in several cases the employers did not have a written job description and were discussing responsibilities in general and at times they were somewhat vague about the details of the position. The job description is important for both the employer and the employee, and today’s posting will explore the meaning and purpose of a formal written description of the employee’s responsibilities when accepting a position with an organization.

An employer needs to develop a job description because it is a way for the organization to be very clear about what its expectations are of the employee. For example, a community center may want to hire a person to be a director of young adult program, but the title does not communicate what is entailed in the person implementing the role. The job description should provide the details of what employer expects the employee to accomplish in implementing the job. It should be more than a listing of tasks and should provide an understanding of how the role fits into the mission and purposes of the organization.

The process of developing the job description can be a useful learning experience for the organization’s professional and lay leadership. In most cases the person administratively responsible will develop a job description. In large organizations this task may be a cooperative effort involving the supervisor and the department of human resources. There are aspects of the text that might be uniform in an organization and so the contribution of the personnel professionals can often enhance the way the document is written.

In some non-profit organizations the personnel committee of the board of directors also reviews job descriptions as part of their oversight role. Lay leaders who serve on the personnel committee learn about the importance of having clarity as to the role and function of each employee. They discuss and examine how the various positions either strengthen the organization or cause havoc because of a lack of clarity and people wind up “stepping on each others toes”. Due to the uncomfortable situation that is created when there are no job descriptions the personnel committee might pass a rule that no one is hired by the agency without one.

Having said this, it is very common for accrediting bodies to require job descriptions for all employees. This is way to ensure the job description is utilized as a tool for good management. The structure is important not only for today but also for planning for the future.

The employer is one part of the equation of a good match between employer and employee. Obviously the second part is the employee and job description serves the employee’s interest. Firstly, it lets the employee know exactly what is expected to be accomplished during the person’s tenure with the organization. If the tasks to be accomplished are fully spelled out in a document there are no surprises that can impact on the employee’s performance. Of course, it does not mean there will not be changes in a job description, however, when a person’s responsibilities are shifted it will be necessary to rewrite the document.

The job description provides the guidelines for assessing the employee’s performance and protects the employee from undeserved criticism. Putting the politics of the work place aside, the document offers objective criteria that are used to determine to what extent the responsibilities have been fulfilled. This evaluation often serves as a basis upon which the employee receives an increase in salary and\or a promotion to a new position within the organization.

The implications of this discussion for the everyday world of work in non-profit organizations are very clear. When a job is offered to a candidate it should be accompanied with a written job description. In the event that there is a wonderful chemistry between the interviewer who is hiring and the candidate, it should be supported by a written document outlining what is expected of the candidate. If there is no document then this should be a “warning signal” to the candidate. There should be request for a written job description prior to accepting any offer of employment.

Although this seems to be self-evident, recently I have had conversations with people who were offered employment with respectable and well known non-profits without receiving written job descriptions. A verbal offer is wonderful to receive but it does not serve the best interest of the employer or the employee. When it does happen, it is best for the candidate to request a written document prior to making any final agreement with the employer. The more that is known and the less that is left up to question, the stronger the tie will be between the employer and the employee and the greater the chance of successfully fulfilling the job.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.