Avoiding common job description mistakes: correlating the requisite information to the actual task can be a chore.
Glen McDaniel, MS, MBA, MLS, DLM (ASCP), a clinical laboratory professional from Atlanta, GA, explains that the department that has the need for a particular employee should initiate a job description. In fact, he says, the job description should be tailored to the specific need. The tasks to be performed and the outcome expected are pivotal. The title of the job is probably the least important, except to the degree that it should be descriptive enough to be recognizable as correlated to the tasks or responsibilities required.
The department manager may seek guidance and input from others but is the one who should initiate the job description. At a minimum, it should include the title, purpose, responsibilities and qualifications.
"The role played by human resources (HR) varies by organization. HR might, for example, be required to approve the title, ensure that the job is not duplicative, do a market survey to assign a pay scale, ensure all the requisite approvals are obtained and might be the ones to approve each job before it is posted," McDaniel says. But the core of the job description should always originate in the hiring departments because they are the ones that know what functions are needed in the department. They are, he explains, also much more likely to know what specific qualifications are required for that role.
"In healthcare, it needs to be a combination of not necessarily the hiring manager, but the technical department, and HR. The technical department management needs to be involved to make certain that accreditation agencies' requirements are met and that the organization is compliant with all regulations," explains Sheryl Whitlock, MA, MT(ASCP) BB, a laboratory technical consultant. "A job description should be a workhorse document that is a checklist for hiring or firing and a tool or demonstrating alignment with accreditation agency requirements and compliance with government regulations."
Recruitment vs. Departmental
Recruitment-focused job descriptions are quite different than departmental, working, job descriptions. The actual official language used by HR and the department is detailed and lists requirements against which the employee will be evaluated once they are hired. It sets out duties, core competencies, behavioral expectations and even physical requirements such as the ability to stand, lift a certain weight, work various shifts, or discern colors.
McDaniel says recruitment-focused job descriptions are, in fact, mini marketing campaigns. They answer the questions: What need do we have? What qualifications do you need to fill this need? What skills and qualifications are mandatory? What skills and qualifications are simply preferred or are negotiable? Such a description is much more condensed than an HR job description and gives an overview of who needs to apply.
"It should be clear who will not even be considered; for example, someone without a certain credential or experience might be automatically excluded. If so, state it in the recruitment job description," he notes.
Often a recruitment-focused job description is also vague in certain aspects, such as addressing organizational culture and desirable transferable skills that would be useful in the job. It might say, "We are seeking someone who is flexible and comfortable working in teams across departments." While that description gives a flavor for the preferred candidate, it is not nearly specific enough to be a working job description against which an employee would be evaluated. Words such as "flexible" and "comfortable" are subjective and hard to measure, but they do give an applicant and idea of what the prospective employer considers important.
Job Description Mistakes
The most common job description writing mistakes McDaniel and Whitlock have noticed include:
Using gender-specific terms (the use of "he" or "she"). Most jobs in health care are gender-neutral. "In fact, I cannot think of one that is gender specific, even if it is observed that one gender is usually in the majority," McDaniel says. Responsibilities and duties should be gender-neutral and should be stated using the active voice: "Operates hematology instruments and generates chartable reports."
Tailoring a job description to fit an employee. "I have seen organizations in which job descriptions are tweaked to match specific employees. There might be an opening, and the manager wants to ensure a particular employee meets the stated qualifications. Worse, I have also seen cases where the job description is altered to rule out a certain employee or a class of employees." McDaniel notes, adding this practice is not only unethical but also can prove legally indefensible. "You should never reject phlebotomists for not having a specific credential if you previously hired or promoted others without that credential. If your medical lab scientists/medical technologists are performing essentially the same jobs but do not have identical job descriptions, there is something wrong," he says.
Listing same responsibilities for two different roles. One confounding issue that might be specific to the clinical laboratory is that of writing too-similar job descriptions for scientists/MTs and MLTs. If the responsibilities for both levels of professionals are the same, then the pay should be the same within the same organization, McDaniel asserts. "Also, if you interchange MTs and MLTs it means that either you are not using MTs to the full extent of their capabilities, or you are allowing MLTs to work outside their scope. Again, such merging of roles opens the organization to legal challenges."
Making it too vague. Job descriptions should spell out core competencies--those skills so specific and integral they cannot be ignored or substituted. "Tasks should also be spelled out to the degree that they can be graded or rated objectively," McDaniel says. In instances where a minimum level of competence or frequency is required, that minimum benchmark should be spelled out. The catch-all "other duties as assigned" should be limited in its use. Whitlock added that job descriptions should "include all of the job's details and the criteria against which the employee will be evaluated. If these are not included and there is an HR issue, then HR has no leg to stand on for counseling, performance improvement plans, or dismissal."
Omitting regulatory needs. Whitlock says that job descriptions must be inclusive of the regulatory and compliance requirements for a job. "Alternately, the staff may not be required in the eyes of the agency that is performing the on-site evaluation. It is then difficult to go back and correct this after the fact," she says.
Critical competencies should include those that are integral for the job. They should reflect the ability to produce specific or minimum outcomes in a safe, timely manner. For example, a blood bank technologist should reasonably be expected to perform antibody screens. It might also be critical that a certain employee be able to work independently and to make critical judgments. A microbiologist is expected to work up routine cultures, meaning culturing the specimens on appropriate media, identifying organisms and using professional judgment to identify clinically significant bacteria, and also distinguishing such bacteria from possible contamination.
McDaniel says critical competencies fall into three categories:
1. Common: These tasks are so common everyone in that role should able to demonstrate that competence.
2. Low-volume: These are done infrequently, and the "typical" employee might not be entirely comfortable doing that task.
3. High-risk: These competencies have potentially dire consequence if not performed directly.
The typical job description contains mostly critical competencies of the first kind (typical, common, expected, everyone-should-be-able-to-do behaviors), but should also include some high-risk and low-volume competencies as well.
Job descriptions should be evaluated and revised from time to time. Periodically, managers should conduct job analyses to see if roles, expectations, or equipment have changed. The job description should reflect what is required now--not what was required 10 years ago. A job analysis should also take into consideration professional standards, local and federal laws, community standards, and regulatory changes. These changes or new findings should be rolled into the revised job description.
Current employees in that role should read and sign the updated job description and have a copy placed in their file. This ensures long-standing employees, as well as new hires, in the same role have the same job descriptions, the same expectations, and will be evaluated against the same expectations.
Matthew T. Patton is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. He can be reached via his website at www.matthewtpatton.com.