Writing a position description
Effective position descriptions are an essential organizational tool. Position descriptions help employees understand how they contribute to the mission, goals, and objectives of the department and the University as a whole by defining their specific duties and responsibilities, supervisory relationships, and the expected results from their work. Position descriptions also serve as the foundation for many HR management functions such as: Recruitment and Selection, Compensation Administration, Unit Reorganizations, Employee Development and Performance Management. Download the for help with writing a position description.
Before developing the position description, managers should ask the following questions:
- What is the primary purpose?
- What are the expected outcomes?
- What are the ‘deliverables’?
From these answers the managers should then identify the position’s duties and responsibilities by considering:
- What are the core responsibilities of the position?
- What is the scope, level and complexity of the work being completed?
- What is the relationship of this position to other positions in the department?
- With what frequency are the various major functions of the position undertaken? (What percentage of time is spent on each core responsibility?)
- What specific materials, equipment, or machines are used in carrying out the job?
- Will the person in the position work with others or alone? What type of interaction occurs with other positions?
- What type of supervision is received? Who reviews a completed project for accuracy? How frequently is work reviewed?
- Does the person in the position supervise others? If so, what type of supervision is provided to other positions?
- What are the minimum qualifications a person must have to be able to do the job (education, training, and/or experience)? What are the preferred qualifications?
- What level of decision making is authorized in the position and who has the authority to override those decisions?
- Identify the level of interaction with individuals external to the university and for what purpose.
- What is the impact of success or failure in this position to the department or the university: minimal, moderate, significant, or critical?
Write the position’s general description
The general description is an overview of the position and should summarize the position’s primary purpose and its role in supporting, administering, or managing the activities of the department, business unit and University. To create this description, clearly and concisely outline the major job functions and expectations of the position, and include information related to the position’s scope of responsibility, major challenges, and complexity of duties. The answers to the questions listed above should aid in the creation of this narrative.
The general description is the section of the position description that appears when the position is advertised. Therefore, it should provide compelling information about the position and University in order to attract the most qualified applicants. It is important to highlight reasons why the position is desirable and promote VCU as a vibrant and dynamic employer. Keep in mind that the general description is the first step in selling the position and University to a potential candidate! The tone, language, and details included in the description influence a candidate’s first impression of the University and its values.
The purpose of the Qualifications section of a position description is to outline the skills, knowledge, and abilities required for an individual to successfully and competently perform the job. Consider the answers to the following questions when identifying necessary qualifications for the position:
- What specific training must an individual have in order to effectively perform the functions of this job?
- What knowledge must a person have to effectively perform this job? (e.g. knowledge of legislation, regulations, policies, practices, local knowledge)? Be specific about the type of skills or knowledge required. List the name of the software packages, the policies, legislation, the type of licenses or personal skills e.g. Occupational Health & Safety, electrician's license, Word and Excel packages, drivers license class B.
- Are there any certifications (trade or professional) required?
- Does this position require formal credentials (a specific degree, for example)? If so, what are they? Could this knowledge be acquired through experience rather than formal education?
- What kind of experience is necessary to competently perform in this position?
The minimum requirements or “basic qualifications” of a position are those qualifications or criteria an individual (or candidate) must have in order to successfully perform the job functions. Applicants must meet the minimum requirements of a position in order to be considered viable candidates. Minimum requirements are determined based on needs of the position; these requirements are specifically referenced in job advertisements.
Outline position’s core responsibilities
The purpose of this section is to describe the main duties and responsibilities of the position and to identify the percentage of time spent on each. In the “Core Responsibility” box, a brief overview (typically a few words about the duty) should be captured. A detailed description of the specific job duty and associated tasks should be provided in the “Measures” section.
The information provided in the Core Responsibilities section of the position description must clearly outline the requirements and expectations of the position. This information will be used as a baseline for employee performance (and whether one is successfully performing the work of the position.) It will also be used for classification of the position, compensation determination, etc.
Important tips for creating the core responsibilities of a position:
- List the most important core responsibility (the primary purpose of the position) first. Other responsibilities should follow in descending order of importance.
- Begin each sentence with an action verb plus an objective to describe what is done, rather than how it is done.
- Quantify, whenever possible. Indicate dollar volume for financial responsibility, number of accounts, ledgers, grants, number of faculties in department, number of people supervised, etc.
- Refrain from using acronyms or abbreviations. If these are used, ensure they are spelled out at least once in the document.
Common action verbs
Administers, Analyzes, Applies, Collaborates, Coordinates, Conducts, Demonstrates, Directs, Ensures, Estimates, Executes, Enforces, Instructs, Interprets, Manages, Organizes, Oversees, Participates, Performs, Plans, Proposes, Reviews, Resolves, Recommends
All position descriptions include Physical and Cognitive Requirements that outline the specific abilities an individual must have in order to perform the functions of the position (with or without accommodation). This is done in order to comply with the American with Disabilities Act Amendments (ADAAA), a law designed to strengthen the protections provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act and to broaden the coverage of individuals under the Act.
Below is a guide to help you determine when Physical or Cognitive Requirements should be indicated in a position description as Essential, Marginal, or Not Applicable. The frequency of the required activity should be considered when determining how to designate a requirement.
- Essential: Absolutely necessary to do the job; there is a significant consequence if an individual is unable to perform the activity or meet the demand
- Marginal: May be necessary to perform the functions of the job, but is not necessary for one to be qualified for the position
- Not Applicable (N/A): Never happens in the job; not relevant to the position
Physical demands and activities
- Light lifting – Ability to lift an object of less than 20 pounds (anything from a piece of paper to small tool)
- Moderate lifting – Ability to lift an object between 20 and 50 pounds (for example, a box of copy paper or tools or equipment)
- Heavy lifting – Ability to lift an object 50 pounds or more
- Pushing/Pulling – Ability to exercise force with hand, arm, or body to move an object (ex: pushing or pulling a door or drawer, pulling a cart that weighs 25 pounds)
- Standing – Ability to be on one’s feet/moving for the majority of the job
- Sitting – Ability to be sedentary, positioned in a chair, seat, or stool
- Walking – Ability to move about the work environment/ambulate independently
- Climbing – Ability to move vertically, on an incline, or on a structure (ex: climb a ladder, stairs, on a roof or the side of a building)
- Reaching – Ability to extend to make contact with an object, as needed (ex: pushing buttons, grabbing, putting a folder in a drawer)
- Bending – Ability to bend from the waist, to stoop, squat, or kneel
- Extreme heat/cold – Environmental conditions outside a controlled temperature that can fluctuate (for example, working outdoors in the summer or winter or in a laboratory with an unusually hot or cold temperature)
- Extreme noise – Environmental conditions with a regular, measurable decibel level of 85 or above and require protective devices
- Vibrations – Environmental conditions that require protective devices (such as use of a jack hammer)
- Fumes - Environmental conditions that require work with paints, chemicals, aerosols, etc. and typically require protective devices
- Mists/Gases - Environmental conditions that require protective devices
- Fast pace – Multiple tasks occurring simultaneously or rapidly in an environment that is changing and/or dynamic and includes frequent interruptions and/or shifts in work flow
- Average pace – Scheduled tasks occurring in sequence or continuously in an environment that is relatively regulated and includes some interruptions and/or shifts in work flow
- Multiple stimuli – Ability to handle multimodal stimuli or to witness interaction with multimodal stimuli (ex: answer a phone, work on a computer and over hear office noise)
- Intense interpersonal interaction – Ability to handle a high volume and level of engagement and complexity of interaction with others
- Moderate interpersonal interaction – Ability to handle a moderate volume and level of engagement and complexity of interaction with others
- Minimal interpersonal interaction – Ability to handle rare engagement/interaction with others
- Frequent change – Ability to handle a regularly fluid, dynamic environment
- Memory – Ability to recall and/or utilize information acquired (both short and long-term)
- Reasoning – Ability to interpret information about the work environment and come to conclusions or judge what is necessary
- Hearing – Ability to detect an audible stimulus (ex: phone, alarm, engine noise)
- Reading – Ability to use cognition to recognize and interpret text in context
- Analyzing – Ability to synthesize information and make a judgment
- Logic – Ability to use pattern of thought
- Verbal Communications – Ability to communicate thoughts and ideas orally and in context
- Written Communications – Ability to communicate thoughts and ideas through text and symbols (on a computer, on paper, electronically)
In the spirit of continuous improvement and process review, review position descriptions with employees on a yearly basis during discussions of performance expectations and development plans for the coming year. If changes identified in your annual plan involve fundamental additions or deletions to the existing functions described in position descriptions, incorporate these changes into your employees' position descriptions. It is also important to note that employees, in partnership with their managers, should be updating their goals in Talent@VCU as often as needed.