Job description, job brief, job ad: what’s the difference?

Your employer has done some reorganisation and you’ve been promoted. You’re heading up a brand-new team and look set for an exciting few months ahead. One of the first tasks you’re asked to do as a new line manager is to recruit a team member. ‘Write a job description and a brief for the recruiter’, HR tells you. ‘And have a go at a job ad. We’re so busy, it will really help. Thanks.’

Can’t they just give a rough job description to the recruiter and let them work it out? Cut it down a bit for the ad? Welcome to Lesson 1 in building a star team: getting these three distinct documents right so that you can make the best hire.

So let’s take a look at how to write a job description that attracts the right candidates. In the next few weeks, we’ll look at how to create a job brief for a recruiter and what to put in a job ad.

What is a job description for?

A job description is a hard-working document. It does exactly what its title says – and then some. As well as describing the skills and competencies needed to do the job, a comprehensive job description also:

  • Describes where the job sits in the organisation’s hierarchy
  • Forms the basis for the employment contract
  • Is an important performance management tool
  • Forms the basis for your brief to your recruitment consultant
  • Forms the basis for a job advertisement
  • Is a reference in case of a job dispute

Step-by-step guide to writing a job description

  1. Choose a self-explanatory job title that truly reflects the role

A good title is clear and simple, and accurately reflects the duties to be performed. It also reflects the job’s place in the corporate hierarchy. Choose a title that allows for comparison with similar positions in your industry. Vague descriptions mean you will be inundated unqualified responses; while a job title that is too specific may mean very good candidates rule themselves out. Finally, remember that when job seekers search online, job titles are the most common key words, so make your job easy to find.

  1. Outline the purpose of the role

This should be a brief summary of the general nature of the job – why it exists and what the incumbent should accomplish. It is also helpful to the candidate to outline the experience required for the role. A descriptor such as entry level, mid-career or executive can be helpful without expressing experience in a definite number of years.

  1. List the duties and responsibilities

This is the most important part of a well-crafted job description. Rather than making a long list of every possible task involved, list them from most important and time-consuming to least, keeping the list as short as you can. Using headings followed by examples of the tasks is a good way to keep the list both concise and descriptive. For example:

Answer the telephone
Greet callers in a friendly tone and redirect calls accurately and promptly.

Around 10-12 tasks is a good number to aim for. Many organisations like to include the phrase ‘other duties as assigned by [supervisor or reporting manager]’.

  1. List the skills and competencies needed

Skills are what the candidate can do, based on education or experience, while competencies are traits or attributes. HTML coding is a skill; communicating with people at all levels is a competency. If particular minimum qualifications, certification, licences or memberships are a requirement of the job, list them here. If specialised experience is needed, it should be spelled out.

  1. Relationship to other positions in the organisation/reporting lines

Both reporting lines and working relationships (‘dotted line’) should be included in this section. The reporting lines should be really clear. Some organisations even include their organisational chart. Clarifying reporting lines gives a picture of who the position reports to and whether anybody reports to them, allowing candidates to see how the position fits into the organisation. ‘Dotted line’ relationships allow the candidate to see who they will work closely with, as opposed to reporting to.

  1. Salary and other conditions

Usually salary is expressed as a range and with reference to other positions in the organisation. If there are conditions such as shift work or frequent travel these should be included here.

How to go about the technical business of writing

The skill in writing a good job description is striking a balance between being too vague and too precise – too vague and you will attract unqualified candidates (and your description will not meet its other, non-recruitment purposes either); too specific and you will cause good candidates to exclude themselves.

Pay attention to structuring and formatting your content clearly and concisely. Using a template can help (see below).

Cut out any insider language that is used only in your organisation or industry and that might serve to exclude well-suited candidates.

Write in straightforward language, describing each responsibility in a way that means they can be measured. Start each task description with a verb, making it clear what the candidate is expected to DO.

Write in a way that reflects the organisation’s culture is helpful if you can pull it off. A job description in a conservative financial environment will be written in formal and impersonal language, while a description for a start-up populated with Millennials might be informal and stress the experimental and collaborative nature of the workplace.

When you have completed the writing process, proofread the document to check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and for sense. Read it aloud to a co-worker if possible.

Using a template

One of the hardest parts of creating a job description is sitting in front of a blank document, often accompanied by a blank mind!  There are many good reasons to use a template to guide you, and that is one.  A template can help you to think systematically – this is one occasion in which creative thinking is not necessarily a good thing. Other benefits of using a well-designed template are:

  • It is easier to achieve consistency across the organisation’s job descriptions
  • Job descriptions are more likely to be complete and comprehensive when you are prompted to create each section
  • Quality standards are easier to enforce if writers have a template to guide them

 Checklist for compiling a job description

Have you included?

  • Job title, department, reporting lines
  • Aim of the position
  • Prioritised list of the most important tasks and responsibilities
  • Skills and traits the ideal candidate will have
  • Level of education
  • Any other requirements such as licences or visa/citizenship requirements

In the next blog post, we’ll look how to create a job brief for a recruiter.