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What's in a Job Description?

February 02, 2018

It might not be obvious, but search firms like ours get lots of unexpected looks into what really goes on at the organizations we work with. And we're not just talking about hiring practices. We also gain insights into office culture, power dynamics, and reporting structures (those that work as well as those that don't). Where does all that information come from? Not from exit interviews or placement questionnaires. No, if you really want to get the inside scoop on an organization, all you have to do is look at the documents that every supervisor and employee loves to hate. 

Yes, I'm talking about your organization's job descriptions.

How do job descriptions reveal more than they were meant to? Let's look at six fairly common types and zero in on what they might be saying about your organization.

The All-Do Can-Do Job Description

Everyone can't (and shouldn't) do everything, but apparently your supervisor never got the memo. Under "responsibilities," this single-spaced three-page monstrosity not only includes "leap over tall buildings" and "argue cases before the Supreme Court," it also has the nerve to end with "other duties as assigned."

What this could mean: There's a good chance with a job description like this that no one knows exactly what the core functions of the position are, so the team responsible for creating it threw everything and the kitchen sink in just to be sure. Unfortunately, that often means that the person who ends up in the position is spread too thin and is likely to underperform. Can't say we're surprised; lack of clarity in a job description inevitably leads to confused priorities and overwhelmed staff. 

Pro Tip: Keep your job descriptions to one page. (Anything longer may be the reason the position is still open.) 

Unrelated Educational Requirements

You value education; we value education. But nonprofits too often are guilty of asking for educational credentials that not only don't match the requirements of the job in question — they don't make sense given the salary range. Why would a junior coordinator need a $75K master's degree? Or why is there an educational requirement for a fundraising position? In a sector where almost everyone is passionate about social justice, why do we insist on either excluding qualified candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds or saddling our junior staff with untenable debt?

What this could mean: Your organization isn't really serious about diversity and inclusion. By insisting on including expensive educational requirements in your job descriptions, you could be eliminating otherwise qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds before your candidate search even starts.

Pro Tip: "Or equivalent experience" in a job description gives you much more flexibility and will open up the candidate pool to a much broader variety of qualified people.

It's Boring

If you nod off halfway through a description for a job you’re trying to fill, that's a sign something is wrong. There's a reason they’re called job ads (not advertisements). You want people to be excited and inspired to work for you, not beaten down and defeated before they walk in the door. OSHA requirements can be a snooze-fest, but there's no reason a job description has to read like the owner’s manual for your car.

What this could mean: We expect boring descriptions from big, bureaucratic organizations; they're a sign that someone’s job involves a lot of time crossing t's and dotting i's. But nonprofits, especially smaller, creative ones, should produce job descriptions that reflect the organization's passion and excitement for the work it does.

Pro Tip: Have a friend from outside your organization review the job description and ask if he or she would want the job. If he or she is honestly excited about the position, you’re on the right track!

Overly Common or Weirdly Specific Qualifications

The qualifications section of a job description can feel like a space-filler. Often, it asks for vague and hard-to-measure soft skills (who doesn't have "strong communication skills?") and outdated tech skills ("Microsoft Word and PowerPoint"), or includes what looks suspiciously like a list of gripes about former employees (e.g., "should be comfortable with last-minute changes" or "must like pets") aren't job qualification so much as red flags.

What this could mean: Someone was told they needed to include a qualifications section in their job description, but he or she really just wants to hire someone who will put up with their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Pro Tip: Think hard about the skills a person really needs to be successful in the position. 

No Reporting Structure

You’ve read the job description, but you can't figure out who the person in the job reports to, or even what department the job falls under. Is the org chart a secret? Does it even exist? If in crafting the job description no one took the time or paid attention to one of the most important aspects of the job — where it falls in the organization’s reporting structure — well, Houston we have a problem.

What this could mean: Sometimes it just means that the organization is really small and has a flat reporting structure. However, it could also mean that there's a tug-of-war going on over supervision of the position.

Pro Tip: Whenever possible, be crystal clear about reporting arrangements in your job descriptions. It could save you some hefty consulting fees later on!

"Mad Lib" Titles

In a rapidly changing job market, we know there’s all sorts of pressure to come up with titles that are creative, but, hey, enough is enough. Does anybody really know what a "Director of Strategic Community Innovations" is supposed to do? If you can't discern from the job title what a job's basic duties are, it's a good bet you'll end up with a bunch of unqualified or unsuitable applicants. 

What this could mean: Your organization is missing a little je ne sai quoi, so it made up a position designed to cobble together various duties and responsibilities that are falling through the cracks. Or, someone was a little too creative when they asked for a promotion and now they're leaving.

Pro Tip: Stick to the basics. If candidates can't readily figure out how a job fits into their desired career path, chances are they will pass on applying for it.

Crafting amazing job descriptions that are inviting, honestly reflect your organization's culture, and accurately detail the responsibilities of the position is an art and takes some practice. Don’t leave it to the last minute or to someone who hasn’t had a fair amount of practice in creating job descriptions. Trust us — you won't regret the extra time and effort!

Headshot_allison_fullerAllison Fuller, a partner at Envision Consulting, has more than ten years of nonprofit experience in executive-level positions.

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Posted by Brenda Ray Scott, CFRE  |   February 05, 2018 at 04:16 PM

Thank you for sharing this article. As a veteran fundraiser with experience as staff and consultant at organziations of all sizes, I found many points in the article spot on with regard to how important it is to have a precise job description.

I do have a concern with the following statement, "Or why is there an educational requirement for a fundraising position?" I appreciate that you were making a point about the inclusion of a potentially expensive four year degree as a job requirement could be a barrier to applicants. Your statement though suggests that fundraising does not take special education or skill that you might gain through that degree program. I can assure you that my career benefited from my education in terms of writing, critical thinking, and knowledge of a variety of arts and sciences. I am writing to suggest that you reconsider what you said about fundraising and higher education. Perhaps suggesting that experience in lieu of a degree is acceptable for meeting that requirement. I have referred to education this way in a number of job descriptions.

In some cases, such as a Masters of Social Work (MSW), degrees are a necessity because of complexity and compliance considerations. I do agree that perhaps the junior coordinator potentially does not need a Masters Degree.

Thank you again for sharing this article. I am looking forward to reading more of your writing.

Brenda Ray Scott, CFRE

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