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How to get job descriptions right

Michael DePilla

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Creating detailed postings and manuals sets expectations and provides clarity.

Whoever first uttered the cliche about hiring slowly wasn’t referring to the amount of time it takes to come up with a unique position, write a job description and create an onboarding plan for a relative stranger. Yet to focus on the more-important task of evaluating your candidates — both before and after you’ve hired them — you need to be as efficient as possible in your process behind the scenes.

To that end, advisors who run their own office have found a little extra work on the front end to craft detailed office manuals and job descriptions has a big payoff down the line. This ensures your staff knows exactly what is being asked of them, avoids confusion if a staff member leaves, and maintains consistency in the same task being performed the same way every time, regardless of who is doing it. Keep in mind, though, a good job description requires time and effort. Too busy to make these yourself? Outsource it!

People are amazing learning creatures. Any motivated person who has reasonable cognitive capabilities can learn to do just about any kind of job.
— Kim Ruyle

William T. Spencer, CFP, AIF, a 10-year MDRT member from Sudbury, Massachusetts, outsources his job description writing to a coaching firm, and saw a clear increase in the quality and quantity of applicants after. “We did hiring in the past, and when you compare it to what a consultant can do, it was a pretty clear difference in getting people interested,” he said. “Pay someone to write it smart, and you only really need to do it once, and then you own it.”

When it came to writing an office manual, John P. Enright, an 18-year MDRT member from Syracuse, New York, outsourced the creation of the manual for his office to Wisdom Link, a business development company. In the process, he transformed an ordinary three-ring binder to a live website with pictures, step-by-step descriptions and videos explaining in detail how to handle everything from office tasks to client meetings.

Enright calls it “the playbook,” and it is now the go-to source for every employee of his six-person practice. He noticed improvements across the board, including decreased confusion among his staff. “The number of questions that came back to me reduced significantly because they know to check the website first before coming to me,” he said.

It also turned out to be a great way to evaluate new hires and expedite their onboarding. “It is a great education process for new hires,” he said, “because they can learn how to do things easily and quickly without other people in the office.”  

The good and bad of job descriptions

One of the first questions to ask when writing a job description is, “What is the intent of this process?” The two primary reasons are to attract new employees, or as a tool to let employees know what’s expected of them.

Kim E. Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting, a Florida-based firm that provides talent management and organizational development, discussed recommendations for both uses.

Recruitment tool. In this scenario, the typical job description includes a section of duties or deliverables, and an additional section of skills and qualifications. “Companies tend to overprescribe in both these areas. You can’t capture everything that’s required of an employee on the job,” Ruyle said. “It’s typically better, especially in mid-level positions on up, to leave some discretion for the manager to say, ‘Here are the primary deliverables for the job.’”

Ruyle also recommends not overdoing the skills and qualifications needed for the job, which only discourages people from applying. “People are amazing learning creatures. Any motivated person who has reasonable cognitive capabilities can learn to do just about any kind of job,” he said.

On the job. Sometimes job descriptions are used as a management tool, but there are risks to relying on it too heavily, Ruyle said. “A primary job of every manager is to let people know what’s expected of them, which should be done through frequent and meaningful conversation,” Ruyle said. “When we try to boil things down to recipes for managers, it can lead to managers abdicating their responsibility.”

Job aid versus job description. That’s not to say that checklists aren’t useful for employees to do their job. “You can have checklists, flowcharts, decision tables, anything that simplifies the cognitive part of doing a job," Ruyle said. "So if I’m new at a job, I might need to have a cheat sheet. That’s not a job description, it’s a job aid.”


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