Recruitment

by Kate Russell

Job descriptions and person specifications

The job description defines the duties in the role the employee will be expected to undertake. The person specification defines the attributes and skills of the person needed to perform those duties. Between them, these two documents can help you objectively analyse the criteria for the job.

Review and update the job description every three or four years. Even if the job title and purpose is the same there are generally some changes that need to be incorporated. Having an up-to-date document is helpful not just in recruitment but for current job holders.

Tip

You can use the job description and person specification to help you write your advertisement, the shortlist and even your interview questions.

What should be included in a job description?

A job description describes the tasks and responsibilities that make up the job. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or complex (although this will depend on the nature of the job). It would normally include the following:

  • Job title
  • Department
  • Summary and purpose of main job role
  • Main tasks.
Warning

Always make sure that the job description includes a catch-all phrase stating that the job holder is required to carry out any other reasonable request by management. While there is an implied duty upon every employee to carry out reasonable management requests, it makes life much easier if you spell it out.

Click here for an example job description

The job description also provides a basis for drawing up a specification of the type of person best suited to carry out the work. This is known as a person specification.

What to include in a person specification

Note

The drawing-up of a person specification is recommended in the discrimination codes of practice.

A person specification defines the qualifications, skills, knowledge, experience and qualities of the ideal jobholder. It describes the person needed to fulfil the duties in the job description.

The sorts of things to consider are listed below. Obviously, they will not all apply in every case.

  • Physical attributes
  • Education
  • General intelligence
  • Special aptitudes
  • Interests
  • Personality
  • Circumstances

Decide what sort of person, in terms of personality, would be ideal for the job role. If, for example, the job is working on a production line, you would want someone who prefers a reasonable level of repetition and is comfortable with routine. Someone with the opposite preferences – the type of person who enjoys lots of change and variety and likes to do things in new ways – would be unlikely to stay long in the job.

Once you have decided what qualities the ideal candidate will bring to the job, consider what is essential and what is merely desirable. Many people make the mistake of including in the essential category attributes that are merely desirable. It is only essential if, without that criterion, the candidate simply would not be able to do the job.

Avoiding unlawful discrimination

You have to be able to justify your selection criteria in objective business terms. Setting unnecessary standards for qualifications, experience or personal qualities may be indirectly discriminatory. If you can’t objectively justify criteria, you may face a claim for unlawful discrimination.

Example

A construction company advertised for staff. The job entailed little more than digging holes in the ground. The person specification stated that the jobholder had to be able to read and write fluent English.

An applicant challenged this criterion successfully, arguing that it was indirectly discriminatory on grounds of race and couldn’t be objectively justified: the jobholder did not need to be able to read and write fluent English.

‘Discrimination’ has almost become a dirty word in recent years, but it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. All we mean by ‘discrimination’ is that we make choices; we are discerning. Do you discriminate when you recruit your staff? Yes! We all do. For example, if I want someone for a driving job, the successful applicant will have to show that he is qualified, legally and medically, to drive. These are reasonable and justifiable selection criteria. Not all discrimination is unlawful or even bad practice.

It is when the selection or exclusion of candidates is based on unlawful and unjustified criteria that we run into trouble. A person’s right not to suffer unlawful discrimination extends from the advertising of a job and the ensuing recruitment process, all the way through employment (training, promotion, contractual terms) and even in the way in which employment ends (for example, selection for redundancy). Protection also extends beyond the termination of the employment contract. That said, most problems can easily be avoided with a mixture of common sense, tolerance, and establishing good procedures and sticking to them.

For more information, see the Short guide to discrimination.

Tip

One way to create a job description is to write a list (or use mind mapping) of those people who will want something from the person doing the job, and what it is they want.