What’s in a Job Description?


Inc.comSquare one of the hiring process is the job description. Use these tips to ensure your descriptions attract the right candidates.

by Debra Woog and Nicole C. Moss

The position specification is square one of the hiring process. Why is the specification important? First, the right specification leads to the right candidates; because people don’t like rejection, they generally don’t apply for jobs that require skills or experience they don’t possess. Second, the position specification defines for the recruiters, interviewers, and co-workers uniform criteria and expectations for the job. Third, a position specification serves as an ongoing basis for performance reviews, raises, and bonuses, and defines and sets expectations for employees.

Although most people refer to this information as the “job description,” we prefer the term “position specification.” More than establishing the role for candidates, position specifications identify for interviewers and supervisors how and for what they are looking in an employee. Yet with all of this responsibility riding on one document, usually no longer than a page, anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer than a quarter of all specifications meet the criteria for effectiveness. Using the steps and tips below, you can ensure that yours make the grade.

So, what belongs in a good position specification? There are seven critical components to a specification, although it may not be prudent to disclose all of them to candidates.

1. Define the Employer

HOW: Who is hiring? First list the vital statistics: name, year the company was founded, key business concept, and don’t forget the URL. Next, position the company: what market do you serve? Why are you better than the competition? What makes you a good place to work? What is your cultural philosophy? Examples from other companies include “we work hard and play hard;” “quality is job one;” “our people are our greatest asset.”

WHY: Prospective employees, even in tough markets, need to be attracted to the employer as much as the job, if not more. Roles and responsibilities can shift, but employers change less often, and dissatisfaction with the employer can lead to high/expensive employee turnover. Employees should know who you are, what you’re about, and where you’re going from the first contact. Every contact with a prospective employee is a marketing opportunity, so capitalize on every eyeball to make sure you hook the best talent.

2. Job Title

HOW: Create and list a title for the job that bears some resemblance to the actual function of the job.

WHY: Title inflation is rampant. And in some cases titles seem content-free. It is not always enough to call people a consultant, an associate, a guru. The title and the position specification should express a unified vision for the role and its responsibilities. Consider this from the candidates’ perspective: they are screening tens, if not hundreds, of job postings. If they don’t understand the job, they won’t try to learn more about it, and they probably won’t apply for it. Moreover, most candidates are building resumes, and want to make sure that they will not be perceived as taking a step down. They also want the resume to be reflective of their experience. And, now more than ever, they don’t want a title out of proportion to their job. How much growth path or credibility would a 23-year-old CFO have with future employers?

3. Reporting Relationship

HOW: 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 company.

WHY: This further sets expectations. For example, a VP of Operations may be the highest-ranking operations employee in the company, or she could report to a divisional COO, who reports to a GM, who reports to the CEO. It should be clear to the prospective employee, and to the actual employee, what rung on the corporate ladder they might occupy. On the other hand, if the company has a flat structure, this should also be conveyed. The more the prospective employees can contextualize this job, the better able they are to assess their own qualifications.

4. Key Responsibilities

HOW: What are the responsibilities of the position? Consider the primary and secondary responsibilities, and add specific detail whenever possible. If the specification is for a database developer, name the size of the database and explain whether the developer will be managing the information and/or writing applications, queries or sophisticated retrieval techniques to retrieve the information. Is the developer also the administrator and responsible for ensuring the up-time and accessibility of the database? Is the developer responsible for selecting support or ensuring the equipment is cutting edge? Cover as many elements of the role as possible, particularly if these comprise more than 5% of the employee’s average workweek.

WHY: This information not only sets expectations and allows candidates to self-select with accuracy; it also guides the recruiters and interviewers to assess candidates’ ability to do the job. Moreover, it sets on-going expectations for candidates who are hired with skills slightly below those required for the job. Very often, an employer hires a bright candidate who has a history of learning quickly to do a job that seems to be a stretch. In fact, we recommend that a position stretches an employee rather than fall beneath his abilities, as challenge is motivating. Clearly defined responsibilities provide employees with a roadmap for growing into each position. It enables them to set goals, and it provides elements for measure in performance appraisals.

5. Experience

HOW: What experience is necessary to do this job? Specifically, what should an employee know, and what MUST an employee know in order to fulfill the expectations and meet the basic requirements of the job? A sales representative should know how to sell. More specifically, if you are a high-end software company, you want a sales rep who has sold high-end software, preferably in your market space. They should not only have sales experience, you want to see that they have closed deals. You want to see that they have made presentations, are comfortable with the level of technical knowledge necessary to convey the benefits and understand the integration issues of your product, are used to working in an environment similar to yours, or can demonstrate that they will reach that comfort level quickly. Consider each element of the position’s responsibilities (see No. 4, above), and whether carrying out those responsibilities requires previous experience.

WHY: The precise skills and knowledge necessary to do a job well may not be apparent to all employees. By setting the criteria on paper you can ensure that everyone is speaking the same language and has the same understanding. This synchronization early on will prevent miscommunication, misunderstandings, and even mistakes in hiring.

6. Competencies

HOW: What competencies are necessary to do the job successfully and work within the team and the company successfully? Competencies are often mistaken for experience or knowledge. Actually they are more general capabilities. For example: “four years of enhancing customer communications through web site development using Flash and DreamWeaver” is a statement of experience; “Flash” and “writing content for websites” are skills or knowledge; and “strong communication skills” is a competency. 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.

WHY: As the marketplace of talent grows increasingly able in terms of technical abilities, high competency ratings more often mark the difference between unqualified and qualified candidates, weak and strong employees.

7. Compensation Range

HOW: How much does the position pay? Ascertain by analyzing your budget, the market, the benefits you offer, and the salaries of your other employees to determine how much your employee should be paid.

WHY: While the compensation range for the position need not, and probably should not, be publicized, 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. Moreover, it should not be a secret known only by the CEO; recruiters should be given this information. Compensation figures can also weed out candidates who make too little at their current job, as the current salary serves as a measure of their level of responsibility, often belying a flashy title. A caveat: ask more questions when such a red flag appears, as there may be an easy and reasonable explanation.


Including these elements in your position specifications will provide a clear view of the job you seek to fill, as well as enable candidates, employees, and supervisors a consistent understanding of each role in your organization. Further, your company will be better equipped to coach employees to meet their responsibilities by laying out a roadmap to future success. Creating the position specification during the staffing process encourages companies to critically assess needs, translate them into positions, and confront necessary issues before costly mistakes are made.

Nicole Moss provides emerging companies with outsourced recruiting services through her company, Blueprint. She welcomes your comments at nicole@blueprintonsite.com.

Debra Woog, principal of connect2 Corp., coaches leaders to be expert managers. Based in the Boston area, she works with clients across the country to achieve their visions of success. She welcomes your comments at inc@connecttwo.com.