Perfecting the Art of the Job Description

Date: June 04, 2019

Learn how writing an effective job description can help you target the best talent and save you from potential lawsuits.

Today’s talent market is tighter than ever. Between the national unemployment rate hovering near a 50-year low and a record 7.6 million unfilled jobs, the U.S. has had more open jobs than job seekers for nearly a year—which has not happened since the Department of Labor began keeping track in 2000.

Many NFIB members report finding qualified workers as their top priority. While stats on unemployment and unfilled jobs may make it harder for small business owners to attract qualified and committed workers, the right job ad and job description serve as a one-two punch in the war to fill seats fast—with the right kind of talent.

NFIB member Cathy DeMerchant, president and co-owner of Capital Area Staffing Solutions in Augusta, Maine, offers these hard-won insights on perfecting the art of the job description.

RELATED: NFIB Small Business Jobs Report

Know Your Collateral—and When to Use It

Too often, small business owners will use the same copy across the job advertisements they post online and the job descriptions they share with interested candidates. But they’re definitely not the same thing, says DeMerchant.

The job ad is used to attract interest in the company and the position. It should hint at the culture and give a sense of what it might be like to work there, in addition to covering the broad strokes of what the position requires.

The job description is the document that outlines the nitty-gritty requirements of the position, and if a hire balks or leaves the company claiming that something isn’t part of the job, the description can save you in court. “We saw that recently with a pharmacist who refused to give vaccinations because of a needle phobia and sued the pharmacy,” says DeMerchant. In court, the pharmacy was able to prove that administering shots was an upfront requirement of the position.

Balance Specificity With Flexibility

The job description should start with a high-level summary of the role’s key responsibilities—but don’t stop there, says DeMerchant. “Any physical requirements, like bending, twisting, filing or picking up stacks of paper, should be listed,” she says. Any unusual workplace conditions, whether that means high levels of noise on a manufacturing site or notable odors in a health clinic, should also be included, in addition to certain technical skills that must be demonstrated.

Including technicalities is a no-brainer, but don’t forget about the soft skills too, such as a welcoming demeanor for an admin role or punctuality for someone you’re hiring to open the shop each morning.

Being specific isn’t only a good legal move. It also means that when candidates read the job description, they can get a feel for what working in that role would really be like. For instance, if there’s an issue with strong odors in the workplace or are unable to work certain shifts, that candidate will seek work elsewhere—before you’ve put in the time and expense of hiring and training.

“One thing I always tell people is to add other duties as required,” DeMerchant notes. Jobs change over time, especially at smaller businesses that might be growing or evolving. That quick line is a good way to indicate that the position itself isn’t set in stone.

Avoid Bias—and Typos

Think of job ads and descriptions as the first impression you make with candidates. A sloppy typo sends the wrong message, especially if the role you’re looking to fill is one that’s detail-oriented. “Always have someone proofread,” says DeMerchant.

Be on the lookout, too, for language and phrases that might be discriminatory. “We see ads that include ‘mother’s hours’ or ‘retirees preferred,’ and that’s a red flag for discrimination in advertising,” she says. Not only will you be limiting who applies for the role (there are plenty of people without children who are looking for part-time hours, after all), but you may be making the company vulnerable to a discrimination claim. Instead, aim to keep the language as gender- and age-neutral as possible.

Finding qualified talent begins with talent finding your job ad. With a job description that is clear and concise, you’ll be able to find workers who are committed, qualified, and the best fit for your business. 

RELATED: How to Write a Lawsuit-Proof Job Description

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