Writing and Maintaining Position Descriptions

Position descriptions are important tools that can help you manage employees’ performance and set expectations. Use the following resources to help you understand the difference between position descriptions and job descriptions, and learn how to write effective position descriptions.

Understanding Position Descriptions

Position descriptions help employees get a sense of their job responsibilities, what's expected of them, and the standards by which they’ll be evaluated and rewarded. Position descriptions may also help you develop recruiting materials, develop orientation and training programs, and ensure consistency and equity among positions.

Position Descriptions vs. Job Descriptions

Each position in your department should have a separate position description that provides details regarding each task of that specific position. Be careful not to confuse position descriptions with official university job descriptions. Position descriptions differ from job descriptions in the following ways:

  • Position descriptions tailor general duties of a position to your departmental needs, whereas job descriptions are official university documents that state general duties
  • Position descriptions are used to manage performance, whereas job descriptions are used for classification purposes and job audits
  • Job descriptions are managed by central Human Resources (HR) and position descriptions are managed by the department owning that position.

How to Write Position Descriptions

You should take the following steps when creating and updating position descriptions.

Choose Your Method of Developing Position Descriptions

As a manager, you can take several approaches to helping your employees craft their position descriptions. Depending on your department and your management style, you may choose any of the following methods:

  • Talk with employees about their work, soliciting their input to incorporate into your ideas about how to describe the position
  • Ask employees to develop their own position descriptions, telling them to work off the university job description—they'll add clarifying descriptions to the employment, classification and compensation job description
  • Draft position descriptions for your employees’ jobs and then discuss your drafts with them to ensure they understand your expectations and standards for the position

Review Relevant Resources

The following sources of data might help you develop position descriptions:

  • Your departmental consultants from central HR's Strategic Workforce Solutions may provide you with helpful ideas based on their experience with your area and others on campus
  • The latest recruiting documents for jobs may help you find language to integrate into the position description
  • If you're involved in quality initiatives and process reviews, you may want to use that knowledge when you look at the flow of the work and how it interacts with other positions

Think Structurally

It's important to think about the position structurally, rather than describing the unique qualities of the individual currently holding the position. Try the following tactics:

  • Think broadly in terms of outcomes, responsibilities and accountabilities, rather than simply listing tasks and duties
  • Cluster responsibilities into broad functions, such as project management, customer contact, supervisory responsibilities, etc.
  • List activities or tasks underneath each broad function or competency

Write Behaviorally

Since position descriptions will be used to monitor and evaluate, as well as to provide orientation and training, write them behaviorally with action verbs. You should do the following:

  • Begin each task-oriented sentence with an action verb (i.e., analyze, coordinate, plan)
  • Be as specific as possible when describing tasks and responsibilities, using the following right and wrong examples for guidance:
    • Wrong: "Be professional"
    • Right: "Observes work rules and practices covered during the orientation process concerning punctuality and breaks"
    • Wrong: "Provide good customer service"
    • Right: "Meets agreed-upon deadlines for faculty members with established two-week deadline for submission"
    • Wrong: "Maintain acceptable interpersonal relationships"
    • Right: "Participate in sectional and cross-functional groups and teams and are evaluated with a peer assessment quarterly or at the end of the project"

Constantly Update and Assess

In the spirit of continuous improvement and process review, position descriptions should constantly evolve based on emerging priorities or shifts in organizational and departmental needs. Be sure to constantly update and assess position descriptions in the following ways:

  • Let employees know that their position descriptions are always subject to change
  • Ensure that employees understand the difference between their job description and their position description—although it may be valid when someone says "That's not in my job description," it may indeed be in their position description
  • Review position descriptions when you discuss the performance expectations and development plans for the coming year with employees
  • If changes identified in your annual plan involve fundamental additions or deletions to the existing functions described in position descriptions, you may need to incorporate those changes into your employees' position descriptions