How to Stop Writing Terrible Job Descriptions

Top 5 Terrible Things You Can Do In a Job Description

I got an email not that long ago from a woman applying for a Master’s degree level position. She wanted to show me the response she received from her application. What follows is the depressing tale of the terrible job description.

After submitting her application, she received this in response as part of the job description that would need to be adhered to:

Physical Requirements:

  • Ability to work at a computer workstation for periods up to 4 hours at a time and for up to 8 hours per day for up to five consecutive days
  • Ability to speak on the telephone for a total of up to 3 hours per day
  • Ability to sit for up to 3 hours without breaks at meetings
  • Ability to perform repetitive movements, such as typing, filing, and the use of commonly used office machines and supplies


Top 5 Terrible Things You Can Do In a Job Description

….and how to make them better!

Physical Requirements Section. As in the example above, physical requirements can be very rigid and soul-sucking. Who looks at that list and says, “Sign me up! I can’t wait to sit for 3-hour meetings without being allowed a potty break.” Now, granted, there are deeper corporate culture problems here that are red flags. I have to ask, why would a non-profit organization (which this was) restrict their employees’ movements, breaks, and methods of working to such a degree? But aside from that, this type of language on a job description is anything but inviting to a prospective employee. What it screams out to us is that the managers in this organization treat their employees like children. And it makes the place sound like a sweatshop!

Make it better: Yes, sometimes it makes practical sense to include physical expectations for the work, like if the job requires lifting 50-pound packages all day. There are also legal considerations for including physical requirements. If you must include them, use language that really ties the requirement to the mission, the bottom line, and the result that the individual is expected to achieve.

2. Built-in excuse: “It’s not in my job description” There’s a great blog post from Rosetta Thurman about this particular topic. After giving an example of a tedious, laundry-list of job responsibilities, she comments: Does this sound like the kind of job anyone would be chomping at the bit to apply for? And we wonder why organizations end up attracting employees who aren’t passionate about the mission. The organization doesn’t even sound passionate about the mission themselves!

Amazingly, these lists are often detailed to the point of absurdity. Of course, you can’t possibly list every responsibility that a person has on a daily basis, so there’s the ubiquitous and often mocked finale: And all other duties assigned. Ugh! Are employers so afraid of their people complaining “It’s not in my job description!”? That is exactly what you’re setting them up to do, by the way.

I did a quick job search just for fun, and found this golden nugget right away. The company breaks down the duties and responsibilities into categories, noting the percentage of time spent in each category. It’s so detailed, I couldn’t even get the whole thing in a screen shot…it just keeps going and going!

Make it better: Don’t list every activity an individual would have to perform to get the job done. It’s an impossible task. Instead, clarify what results are expected. This is the core of a Results-Only Work Environment. For example, for a marketing manager, one of their results could be to increase the number of leads and customers through effective marketing campaigns. But if the result isn’t making a difference to the ultimate outcome of the organization, then it’s just an empty goal. Achievable but meaningless.

Determine if the measurable goal is right by tying it directly to the outcome: In order to make life fun and easy (outcome) for our customer, our XYZ campaign is designed to increase defined targeted leads by 7% (results measure). We will monitor customer satisfaction scores and conversion rates (meaningful outcome measure) to determine if increased leads impacts the outcome. Always define a clear result tied to the outcome or mission of the organization so that the goal is meaningful.

Job Descriptions Stifle Creativity and Innovation. Expanding on that last point, when you create a list of activities for your employees via a job description, what you’re saying is: “This is how you’re going to work. It doesn’t matter if these things have nothing to do with your result. It doesn’t matter if you have creative or more efficient ways of getting it done. We will tell you how to do your job.” You limit the scope of your employee’s role within the organization. If it’s not in their 2-page list of “activities” then why should they do it? The thing about freeing your employees to focus on results and only results, is that they come up with amazing new solutions to old problems. “The way things have always been done” is a business death wish. You want them to be free to be nimble and change with new trends and technologies. They need to feel trusted to find the best ways to meet goals. They need to be free to collaborate with other departments or offer ideas to the CEO about how to change a process or service.

Make it better: Give your employees some motivation to innovate and be creative. This indeed goes beyond just a written job description, and hits at the core of how your business operates. That kind of philosophy automatically translates to the person who is reading the job description. And here’s a shocking idea: Let your employees (who are quite capable…that’s why you hired them, right?) figure out what activities they need to perform to achieve that result.

Nobody reads them anyway. Why are you writing a job description? Is it primarily for legal, HR, and the managers? Hopefully, one of the reasons has a trace of something to do with attracting the right talent. It’s a marketing tool, and yet most job descriptions are written like an internal, bureaucratic memo. No one wants to read it, and it will be forgotten the moment the person is hired. That is, until they need to reference it for #2.

Make it better: Make your job descriptions outcome-based, readable, enjoyable, and attractive to outsiders! And while you’re at it, take a step back with a fresh set of eyes on your corporate culture. Ask yourself why the control, the requirements, the laundry lists – even the document itself – is necessary in the first place.

*Disclaimer: Please do not take this post as legal advice about what job descriptions should or should not include. I based this post on our top-of-mind thoughts and…well, common sense.

What are some of the worst job descriptions that you’ve seen?

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Jody Thompson

Jody Thompson, along with her partner Cali Ressler, is the Founder of CultureRx and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Jody is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and bestselling author. She has been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, HR Executive Magazine, and the New York Times. You can find her on Linkedin.

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