What is a job description?


A job description is a written document that outlines the general tasks and responsibilities of a role.

A job description is a written document that outlines the general tasks and responsibilities of a role. A job description can help candidates determine if a role is of interest and whether their skills and experience match the company’s requirements. This ultimately streamlines the application process by attracting qualified candidates that meet the company’s prerequisites.  

While job descriptions vary depending on the role, company, and type of work, the following information is generally included:  

  • Company overview 
  • Job Title 
  • Purpose of the role 
  • Responsibilities of the role 
  • Essential and desirable criteria 
  • Location 
  • Reports to 
  • Team overview 

Job descriptions can be found on company websites, job boards, LinkedIn, or any other site where a job may be listed. 

History of job descriptions 

The history of the job description dates back a hundred years and has its roots in psychology – more specifically, in a school of thought known as “Scientific Management”. Scientific Management involved a process called Job Analysis, which sought to identify the duties and requirements of a role by considering the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (KSAO) needed to perform that job. This information was then synthesized into a formal document, which can be thought of as the first iteration of the job description.  

While effective in theory, Job Analysis had some flaws. Most notably, it was based on time and motion studies. While time studies established the standard times for specific jobs and tasks, motion studies identified the techniques and technical definitions for describing the physical elements of a job – resulting in job descriptions that were fixed, static, and repetitive. As modern jobs are often comprised of many different elements and moving parts, job descriptions are often subject to change and evolution. Therefore, instead of relying on formal processes to evaluate and assess jobs, many companies now turn to line managers and HR professionals to create job descriptions based on up-to-date templates and current data.  

Recent trends in job descriptions 

Creativity and flexibility 

In recent years, many companies have started to broaden the responsibilities included in job descriptions to encourage employees to think beyond what is listed. This trend has been driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic as lockdown, social distancing, and work from home precautions forced employees to be flexible and creative to adapt to their new normal.  

In many cases, this new way of working and solving problems led to a natural evolution of many employees’ roles – and a rethinking of many longstanding principles and practices. Therefore, while capturing the core elements of a role in the job description remains critical, HR professionals have identified a growing need to ensure that employees don’t feel boxed in by their job description. Rather than limit candidates, it should encourage them to explore new ways of working and thinking – which will ultimately lead to positive outcomes in the workplace. 

Advantages of job descriptions 

Job descriptions help candidates determine whether their skills and experience align with a role by providing a clear outline of a company’s expectations and requirements. The job description can also help candidates decide if their personality and values match those of the organisation, which is often a determining factor in whether a candidate applies for a role. Once a candidate has found a role that suits their skills and interests, the job description can help the applicant optimise their CV through commonly used terms, phrases, and keywords, which may help their chances of being hired. The job description can also aid in the interview process, as it is likely that the hiring or HR manager will ask about a candidate’s experience and qualifications in relation to the desired skills and attributes listed on the advertisement.   

Disadvantages of job descriptions 

Job descriptions can be overwhelming 

With the list of required and desired skills often spanning multiple pages, job descriptions can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to note that job descriptions are often comprised of nice-to-haves rather than need-to-haves. This is especially the case with permanent roles, as the responsibility to further an employee’s learning and development lies with the employer rather than the candidate – meaning that a candidate may still be a good fit for a permanent role even if they don’t tick off all the boxes on the job advertisement. For contract roles, however, the responsibility to keep training up-to-date lies with the contractor. Therefore, job descriptions for contract roles tend to be more uncompromising, as the employer expects the candidate to be ready-made. 

Unconscious bias in job descriptions 

Unconscious, or implicit, bias occurs when we make automatic judgements based on our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes or cultural context. In job descriptions, implicit bias manifests itself in the language used to describe the requirements of the role and, sometimes, in the name of the position itself. Research conducted by the American Psychological Association has shown the words used in job descriptions may discourage candidates from applying to certain roles, so it’s important that hiring managers be aware of their implicit biases and actively avoid them. Inclusive language decisions, such as making use of gender-neutral titles (salesperson versus salesman), ADA Compliant Language (switching out “see” for “detect”) and replacing exclusionary words (changing “grandfathered in” to “legacy plan”) are all ways that companies can ensure that their job descriptions are free from bias.  

Use Case 

Job descriptions often look different depending on the role, company, or type of work they are advertising. Permanent roles, for example, tend to have longer job descriptions that not only outline the expectations and requirements of the role, but what is to be gained by the candidate. Contract roles, on the other hand, are typically much shorter, written in a bullet point format, and focus exclusively on the required skills and experience for the role at hand.  

While job descriptions vary between roles and companies, the format has remained consistent (a written document or webpage) throughout the years. However, the format of the job description may be evolving, as many companies have started to experiment with using different media forms to communicate their company culture and showcase employee testimonials. Microsoft, for example, has created a YouTube channel (@WorkingAtMicrosoft) that features a range of videos centred around about their mission, employees and culture. They’ve also created an online hub called “Microsoft Life”, which includes articles and stories from employees explaining what it’s like to work at the company. Both platforms serve as an extension of the traditional job description and will enhance a candidate’s overall understanding of Microsoft.