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Job descriptions help leaders and employees alike do their best work

A good job description helps an employee find his or her place in the universe — or at least within your nonprofit. Consider the various ways job descriptions can support communication and management.

What are some ways to use job descriptions?

For starters, a job description can help attract the right person for the position — whether it's a current staff member looking for an advancement opportunity or someone external to your organization.

Once an employee is settled in a position, a job description offers clear guidelines against which performance can be measured. Job descriptions can also be used to guide professional development and help employees understand opportunities for job advancement.

Job descriptions also support legal compliance. For example, a job description can outline an affirmative action plan or equal opportunity policy as well as provide an objective basis for the difficult decision to terminate an employee for poor job performance.

Who should write job descriptions?

Job descriptions are typically prepared by human resources staff or the search committee with input from key leaders, the direct supervisor or line manager, and the board of directors or trustees. Input from the employee himself or herself is also valuable. Depending on the size and philosophy of your organization, as well as the level of the particular job, you might consider hiring an external consultant or job and salary analyst to write a job description.

What are the key elements of a job description?

A job description guides the tasks, duties, functions and responsibilities of a particular position. Key elements of a job description typically include:

Element Description
Job title Name of the job position
Reporting relationships Direct supervisor job title and anyone else to whom the position has a reporting relationship
Classification In the U.S., exempt or nonexempt
Position type Full-time, part-time or temporary (including time period, if it's a temporary role)
Expected working hours Typical work hours and shifts, overtime expectations
Salary grade or pay range Compensation level or minimum and maximum salary
Supervisory responsibilities Job titles of any direct reports
Job summary or purpose Brief outline of the position's scope in relation to the organization's mission (aiming for about three to four sentences)
Essential job functions Detailed tasks, duties and responsibilities that are truly necessary for the position
Competencies Knowledge, skills and abilities
Qualifications and requirements Educational background, related experience, applicable licensing or certification
Work environment Temperature, noise level, indoors vs. outdoors, or other descriptors of working condition
Physical demands of the job Bending, sitting, lifting, driving or other physical demands
Travel requirements Typical percentage of travel time, where the travel occurs (such as local, national or international) and whether the travel is overnight
Affirmative action plan or equal employer opportunity Statement that outlines the organization's requirements and practices to prevent discrimination in employment
Other duties and functions Disclaimer that other duties, responsibilities and activities may be assigned at any time
Signature lines Names and job titles of employee, direct supervisor, department manager and/or human resources representative

What are some ways to identify essential job functions?

Within a job description, it's generally best to list no more than 10 essential job functions. If you're not sure whether a task, duty or responsibility is essential, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the position exist to perform the specific function?
  • How often is the function performed or how much time is spent performing it?
  • What are the consequences of not performing the function? Would not performing the function be detrimental to the organization's operations?
  • Does the function require specialized expertise, training, education, ability and/or experience?
  • Could the function be redesigned, performed in another matter or easily reassigned to another employee?

For example, consider an employee hired to proofread documents. The activity of proofreading is an essential function because it's the reason the position exists. In another scenario, it may be an essential function for a file clerk to answer the telephone if there are only three employees in an especially busy office and each employee performs many different tasks.

What are some job description templates?

Check out these sample templates, available for use either as is or adapted as needed for your organization:

How often should job descriptions be updated?

An up-to-date job description serves both employee and employer. Far from being carved in stone, updates might be needed as your organization grows, employees pursue professional development training or otherwise increase skills and expertise, or new legislation takes effect. You might consider updates to job descriptions once a year, during regular performance evaluations or when you post an existing position. Add or adjust any skills, responsibilities or qualifications that have changed as the field — or technology — has changed.

Ideally, job descriptions should provide the framework to help leaders and employees alike do their best work.

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Disclaimer

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

Disclaimer

References

The HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector: Getting the right people

The Balance: How to develop a job description by Susan M. Heathfield (2016)

The Bridgespan Group: Nonprofit job description toolkit

References

Author

Baltimore-based writer and educator