How to Write a Job Description and Why Most People Get Them Wrong

Adam SeabrookHow To Write A Job Description

Looking for help writing a job description

Great! I can help you do that.

But before we go any further, let's make sure we're talking about the same thing. I've found there's a little confusion between a "job description," and a 'job ad." People tend to use the two interchangeably.

Job Description Vs Job Ad

What's the difference? Am I just nitpicking?

Believe it or not, there is a big difference, and knowing when to use which one can help improve you reach more job seekers.

You see, a job description is a technical document. It's meant to describe the job for internal approval, job requisitions, and to help candidates and new hires understand exactly what will be expected of them.

A job ad, on the other hand, is not technical at all. It is an online job post, meant to sell your ideal candidate on working for your team. Writing a great job ad will help you find great candidates for your positions. 

What I so often see is people posting their basic job description template - boring technical documents - on job boards. 

Yikes!

Imagine you're a restaurant owner trying to sell diners on a new dish. Would you have servers walk out into the dining room and hand customers a copy of the recipe? Of course not. You'd give them an elegant menu that sells them on how delicious the new dish is going to taste.

So if you came here looking for help writing something that attracts great candidates, please go to my article on How to Write a Job Ad

Still here for the job description? I can help with that too. 

First, we've got a great resource for you, pre-written job description templates for the most commonly searched jobs. Copy and paste one of those into a document, and you'll have a good head start. 

Now, I'll take you step-by-step through each section of a good job description. 

How and Why to Choose the Right Job Title and Summary

It seems more and more I'm seeing "creative" job titles out there. 

You know, marketing "gurus," PR "ninjas," "happiness engineers."

I guess I understand why. People are just trying to have a little fun with something that's typically boring, and at the same time trying to create a little more excitement around a job.

I don't want to come off as a grumpy old man telling the kids they can't have these new-fangled fancy-pants titles... but I do want to point out the drawbacks, and suggest at least putting the standard title into the job summary.

Also, if you're trying to decide how to title a position, I'd like to give you a hand with that. It's an important part of your hiring process, and the creation of an accurate job description can help set the stage for a successful hire. 

Clarity is the first thing to think about with job titles.

When an employee with the new job title calls a client to introduce themselves, or hands out their business card, will people understand what it is they do? 

If you give someone the title of "happiness engineer," they'll probably end up having to explain to everyone that they do customer service, and it won't be long before they just start saying "I do customer service."

If you use a standard title, everyone will have a pretty good idea what an employee does and their level of responsibility. It will also make it easier for employees to understand where they are on a pay scale. 

For instance, anyone can go to PayScale and quickly grab compensation information for the title of office manager. Check it out:

payscale for job descriptions

If you title your position "Catalyst" there's no place to look it up - and yes, that's an actual title used by a company for someone who serves as an office manager.

The title can become even more important, in regards to pay, when there are similar sounding job titles with different pay scales. 

What's the difference between a marketing manager and a marketing director?

About $20,000 per year, according to PayScale. 


pay-scale-job-description

Deciding whether to call someone a director or a manager may influence whether they see themselves as being paid at, above or below market rate. So getting the title right can actually be a big deal. 

Want help deciding on a title? 

I suggest you check out O*NET Online. It's a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor that has very detailed information about almost any job you can imagine. 

Suppose you're hiring someone in sales, but you're not quite sure the exact title. 

Go to O*NET and type in the very broad title "sales."

Using Onet to research job descriptions.

Now you'll see a huge list of potential titles for your job. Clicking on any of them will give you the essential functions people with this title typically perform, education level, training, abilities and a wealth of additional information. 

Onet search for job descriptions

Using this as a guide, you should be able to figure out which title best describes the position you're hiring for.

O*NET can also help you if you're having difficulties with the summary. 

Just take a look at what I get if I click on the link for "Sales Engineers," after doing the search for "sales."

Basic job summary.

You'll find a basic job summary already there for you. The "tasks" section below that can be useful as well.

Help Your New Hires Succeed by Defining Success

This is a short section in your job description that lets new everyone know what success looks like in this position after the first 90 days, quarter and year (you can adjust these time frames as needed, of course).  You should also include your organization mission if you have one.

Ideally each time period has a short list, 3-5 tasks, that you expect a successful applicant to complete. This makes it really clear what is expected, so that your new hire isn't left guessing as to whether they're doing well. 

Also, if the new hire isn't working out, and hasn't completed these tasks in the given time frames, you'll have a clear reason for terminating them. 

Beat Back the Bullets - Getting the Right Responsibilities and Qualifications

Want to make your job description easy to read? Want to be sure everyone who reads it gets the most important information out of it?

Cut back on the bullet points. 

The responsibilities and qualifications sections of a job description are often a pile of bullet points from a deep job analysis, ranging from the most important responsibilities and qualifications for a specific position to the responsibilities and qualifications anyone capable of fogging a mirror can satisfy. 

Here's an example of a job description that goes about 5 bullet points too far with its responsibilities:

Job responsiblitites

Here's a much better one:


Now I'm sure that there are more things to do at this job than just the five listed. I bet they expect employees to adhere to their company dress policy, and do "other miscellaneous duties" too. They just don't waste anyone's time with it.

So, what should you include in the responsibilities section?

Responsibilities that are absolutely essential to the job, that are not also absolutely essential to nearly every job. 

The same goes for qualifications. The qualifications in the list below are mostly pretty sensible. Almost all of them are very specific abilities that not everyone possesses. Which is what makes two of the bullet points stand out.

Job experience

Not every job requires you to have a knowledge of distributor operations. But would anyone want to hire a person with no sense of urgency, or terrible interpersonal skills?

It it goes without saying, just don't say it. 

What should you include in the responsibilities section?

Qualifications, such as education, experience, training and skills that are essential to the job, but not essential for every job. 

Keeping your job description responsibilities and qualifications down to the essentials will save you and everyone that needs to read them a little time. It will also allow people to focus on the essentials, rather than fetting bogged down in unimportant details.

Why You Can Leave those other Sections Out

If you read other guides to writing a job description, you'll probably get advice on additional sections your description should contain. 

Company Culture, Overview, Contact Information, and Location are a few common ones. But those really belong in a job ad. 

In a good job ad, you'll want to give candidates information about your company, who to contact, and where your business is located, because you're trying to sell them on these things. Don't just publish a boring job specification sheet for your job ad. It won't work.

In a description, you're simply describing the job for internal use. Who ever reads it should ideally know about the company and location, and doesn't need to know who to contact about a job.

Wrapping it Up - Use this Job Description Example to Improve Yours

Companies publish a lot of hybrid job descriptions/job ads online. 

But it's hard to find a good example of a document that's just meant to serve as the job description. 

So I'm going to take a fairly common job - accountant - and provide you with an example job description to compare yours with.

Title: Accountant

Summary: As an accountant for Betterteam, you'll be creating and analyzing key financial reports and records for the company.

Success in this position:

First 90 Days: Software systems mastered.

First Quarter: Full understanding of our records and reporting system. 

First Year: Fully independent and capable of training other accountants.

Responsibilities:

  • Prepare, examine, and analyze records and financial statements to ensure they are accurate, complete and inline with laws and standards.
  • Report to management on the state of our finances. 
  • Establish tables of accounts and assign entries. 
  • Manage our software-based accounting system. 
  • Compute taxes, prepare returns, and ensure we meet tax payment and reporting requirements.

Qualifications:

  • Bachelor's degree in accounting. 
  • Minimum 3 years experience.

That's it, pretty short and sweet. I just tried to keep this to the basics of what this job requires and as few bullet points as possible.

Don't Post this On a Job Board! Do This Instead:

I think it's safe to say that if you're writing a job description, then you're preparing to hire in the near future.

If that's the case, be sure that you write a job ad to accompany this description, that really sells the role and your company. Once you've got the right tool for the job, post your ad to 100+ job boards and take your online job postings to the next level.

Hiring? Post your job to 100+ job boards

Adam Seabrook
Adam Seabrook
Adam Seabrook is Co-Founder of Betterteam. Before Betterteam Adam spent 10 years recruiting for companies like Google, Atlassian, Dell, Symantec, Coca-Cola, Bigcommerce, and Oracle. He lives in Sydney, Australia.