Creating Job Descriptions that Work for You

Aug 3, 2015 | Management and Leadership, Philanthropy Journal, Resources

Understanding the components of a great job description will help you meet your staffing needs. If you take the time to explore those needs, all of your job descriptions will become much more valuable tools for your organization.

Heather Carpenter ThumbnailTera Qualls ThumbnailSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Heather Carpenter and Tera Qualls

A great job description isn’t just a piece of paper a job candidate reads to determine their fit for your open position and organization. A great job description helps you meet your staffing needs. If you take the time now to explore those needs all of your job descriptions will become much more valuable tools for your organization. To help you create these great tools, we have outlined a process for you to build effective job descriptions. Jobs Resource Article Image

Before starting in on the steps of creating your own — more effective — job descriptions you should understand the components of a good job description. Each component is vital to an employee’s understanding of their responsibilities and the level at which they should be practicing that activity.

Some of the components, including salary and a breakdown of job activities by social change competency category aren’t traditional job description components. Even though salary is a key aspect in hiring and retention, too many organizations are afraid of including the salary range for fear it may deter good candidates if too low or deter donors if too high. The reality however is different, salary will become a factor in the potential employee’s decision to join your organization, no matter if they know ahead of time or not. Include salary upfront to avoid wasting valuable time interviewing candidates that won’t accept the salary. Instead, spend that time on activities that will benefit your organization positively, like building relationships with the donors that may be worried about your operational costs.

The second inclusion we recommend that is non-traditional, is the mapping of responsibilities to social change competencies. We developed the social change competencies, through extensive research, for the book The Talent Development Platform: Putting people first in social change organizations. These competencies are Advocacy and Public Policy; Communications, Marketing, and Public Relations; Financial Management and Social Entrepreneurship; Fundraising and Resource Development; Grantmaking and Direct Service; Human Resources Management and Volunteerism; Information Management; Leadership and Governance; Legal and Regulatory; and Planning and Evaluation, which are the key competencies every nonprofit manager should possess at some level to be effective in their role. (Get full descriptions for each competency here.) We encourage your organization to also develop your own core competencies based on specific positions, departments if you have them, and the culture and values of your organization. Having these competencies in place, along with their concurrent activities will help you develop learning tools in the future and systematically evaluate your team on their performance.

Now that you are familiar with the basic components of a job description, let’s talk about how to ensure the job description development and revision process is of benefit to your organization. In order to make the process as effective as possible, we recommend taking three steps. These steps can be done at the beginning of the launch of a new program, during strategic planning, or for an individual job as one comes open. If you can, use job description development to your benefit and fit them in to your current planning and staff development work as much as possible.

Step 1: Identify tasks and activities within each job.

The trap of the job description development process is simply using a job description you had from before to hire someone. The problem is that often roles evolve over time and job descriptions can become irrelevant very quickly. To avoid this, we recommend taking a step back to ensure all your job descriptions are current. This step in the work should follow the following outline:

  1. Take a look at your strategic plan and or program activities and list all activities necessary to complete the work. These don’t have to be minute details, but overriding activities.
  2. Sort each of those activities by the social change and organizational specific competencies for which they fall under.
  3. Decide which individuals should take on each activity, aligning those activities with their current work.
  4. Ask each employee to review their current job description; remove what they no longer do; add tasks assigned from the strategic plan and add activities they do regularly not found in their description.

As a leader, you might not be as familiar with individual roles as you think you are. Take this time to allow staff to be involved in the job description development process, reflect on the work they actually do, and determine what competencies should be required of them based on the organization’s goals.

During this step, you can take the opportunity to shuffle people or tasks as necessary. You may find out someone is performing above and beyond their job description so you may give them a promotion, raise, or shift their tasks around. Job movement is part of a larger organizational discussion; however, looking at responsibilities in this way will guide relevant and timely discussions about how each role fits within your organization.

Step 2: Decide on proficiency level.

Once activities are identified, the next step is to ensure you understand the proficiency level needed to complete each activity. The proficiency level is the level at which the individual is expected to perform their work. You want to be sure each individual role has the right expectations for their required level of work.

We use five proficiency levels developed from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): fundamental awareness, novice, intermediate, advanced, expert. Each activity within a role should be assigned to a proficiency level within this scale.

For example, there is a big difference between someone “Observing marketing meetings” which is considered fundamental awareness, and someone “Managing a marketing meeting” which is considered advanced.

Take the time to review the core competencies in every job and decide whether or not the activities within that job should be at an expert level, or fundamentally awareness, or anywhere in between. You can then use this reflection to ensure the job description has terms or action words that reflect the level of expertise needed for that role.

Step 3: Put it all together.

Once you have steps two and three complete, it’s now time to put together the full job description. Part of this work is simply putting the text in the right format, but a bigger part is ensuring that your job descriptions are using the right language to recruit the right candidates and ensure that all your employees understand the full expectations for their work.

Have employees read over their revised job description to ensure expectations are clear. Keeping them involved throughout the revision process will ensure less resistance to the revisions.

Finally, if you are using the job description to recruit new employees, take a moment to ensure your organization’s culture is clearly described throughout the text and that you do not use any language that could exclude a group of potentially amazing candidates. The job recruitment process needs to be an equitable experience and this process begins with inclusive language as to not exclude any potential candidates.

As you read through each of these steps you may get a feeling of being overwhelmed by the time this might take. We want to ensure you though that taking the time to revise your job descriptions on a regular basis will reap many rewards. Employees that understand the expectations for their work perform more effectively and you will hire candidates that are a much better fit for your organization; both factors that reduce employee turnover. As a result you will avoid high turnover rates and get more work done, both of which are well worth the investment in this process!

Heather L. Carpenter, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Nonprofit Management, Human Resources, Financial Management, Fundraising, Technology, and Volunteerism.
Tera Wozniak Qualls, M.P.A., is founder of Momentum, a nonprofit consulting firm focused on community engagement and talent development for nonprofits. Tera also serves as an adjunct professor of Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches Introduction to Nonprofits and Volunteerism and Human Resources.

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