The Power of Defining Roles: Why Job Descriptions Matter

Written by Jill Krumholz and Susan Kreeger


“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
― Vince Lombardi

“Know where you fit in, know how you contribute to the greater whole, and know and appreciate the roles of those around you,” another former coach told his players and staff repeatedly throughout the season. These coaches understood that each individual on their team and clearly defined roles were critical to the success of their organizations.

Yet, one of the biggest barriers to small business owners building a successful team is the lack of investment, whether time or resources, in development of the team. This often starts with resistance to creating too much structure – and skepticism about defining and formalizing roles. But, for your business to grow, you need to define and communicate not only your vision of success for your employees but also how they can achieve it. Job descriptions are the foundation and a critical tool for defining roles and building your team and your business.

Job Descriptions: Strategic, Tactical and Legal Implications


On a strategic level, job descriptions align people with company goals and vision. They help determine organizational structure, evaluate how needs will be met, identify any gaps in the responsibility of roles, define the functional expertise needed for a given job, and how each job fits into the company.

Job descriptions, when utilized and written properly, are a communication tool that sets transparent expectations and helps create value for the company and its employees.


On a tactical level, job descriptions serve as a tool in all areas of the employee lifecycle: hiring, onboarding, setting salaries and making compensation decisions, managing performance and creating succession plans.
More specifically job descriptions have direct impact on how you hire, manage, pay and develop your employees. By carefully drafting job descriptions you will:

  • Determine the functional expertise needed for a given job.
  • Clarify specific job requirements and qualifications, which leads to better hiring decisions.
  • Delineate work assignments, serving to detect overlaps or gaps in positions, and drive realignment of organizational structure as necessary.
  • Create agreement around expectations between managers and staff.
  • Define performance standards and inform performance evaluations.
  • Clarify expectations for performance management and corrective action.
  • Clarify jobs internally to maintain equitable and competitive pay programs, and to benchmark positions in the external market.
  • Influence job-related training and employee development.


Legal Compliance

While job descriptions generally are not required by law, they will help you to stay in compliance with various laws and regulations. In particular, well-written job descriptions play an important role in compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):

  • Under the ADA, an individual must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations. Employers who use job descriptions have the opportunity to set forth those essential job functions in writing to avoid areas of doubt and controversy about what an employee must be able to do to perform his or her job successfully.
  • Under the FLSA and similar state laws that relate to overtime pay provisions, job descriptions are used to categorize positions as “exempt” or “non-exempt.” Employers must accurately describe the job duties in order to determine whether the position is eligible for overtime pay or meets any of the exemptions under the law. Improper classification could lead to back pay of overtime and possibly penalties.


Guidelines for Creating Job


Creating job descriptions requires a careful analysis of each position needed to support your business operations and the relationship of one position to another. Here are some suggestions for completing the process successfully:

  • Identify someone who will manage the process internally and work with outside experts.
  • In the absence of an internal human resources professional, it is advisable to get legal or human resources expertise in the job description process.
  • Engage employees early in the process by interviewing incumbents in a position or creating a questionnaire to be completed by staff and approved by managers.
  • Determine requirements for a position by interviewing and observing appropriate employees.
  • Provide a broad description rather than listing every task – in listing every task you are bound to leave something out or box yourself into a corner, where employees may question activities not specified in their job description.
  • Identify sources for sample job descriptions.
  • Follow a consistent format by using a job description template.
  • Base descriptions on current job requirements, not only on what an incumbent is doing or the incumbent’s qualifications.
  • Create a review and approval process to ensure buy-in from employees and management.
  • Develop a process to keep job descriptions current by reviewing them on a periodic basis.


Elements of a Job Description

Job descriptions should include the following elements:

  • Job title.
  • Salary range.
  • FLSA status–exempt or non-exempt.
  • Statement of purpose or objective of the position.
  • Description of reporting structure.
  • Objectives, tasks, duties, functions, and responsibilities of a position.
  • Purpose of the work as it relates to the company’s mission and goals.
  • Education, including degrees, professional certifications, and licenses truly required to perform the job.
  • Qualifications and specific skills required, including years of and type of experience; and management, decision making, and problem solving skills.
  • Work location and conditions, physical requirements, equipment and tools used, travel required, and work schedule.
  • A statement that the job description is not intended to represent a complete, comprehensive list of all duties and responsibilities and that there may be unplanned activities and other duties assigned.


You may also want to consider more competency based job descriptions that emphasize expectations and accountabilities, rather than specific tasks, and focus on results rather than job duties.


There is no more essential tool when it comes to human resources planning than well-written job descriptions. When your employees know where they fit in, how to contribute to the whole, and appreciate the roles of the people around them they can successfully contribute to the growth and success of the team and the business.