By Barbara Haga, May 19, 2021

If one more supervisor says to me, “If it’s not in the performance plan, I won’t be able to hold the employee accountable for this,” I’m going to scream. There are a lot of things that employees are expected to do or requirements that they are expected to meet that aren’t performance plan matters. Performance plans are likely much more visible to employees and managers because they are reviewed a couple of times each year at a minimum. But position descriptions are the foundation for many human resource decisions, and well-crafted ones can help your organization in many ways.

This month, we are going to look at what position descriptions are supposed to be and how to get that foundation firmly in place. We’ll address how the position description ties in with the performance plans in a future column.

 According to OPM’s FAQs on classification, a position description (PD) is “… a statement of the major duties, responsibilities, and supervisory relationships of a position. In its simplest form, a PD indicates the work to be performed by the position. The purpose of a PD is to document the major duties and responsibilities of a position, not to spell out in detail every possible activity during the workday.” The position description describes not only the major duties and responsibilities, but it also describes the conditions under which that work is performed, such as the when the employee has the latitude to apply judgment to interpret guidelines. It explains what kind of supervisory review is expected.

Up to date and accurate

Having an up-to-date and accurate position description is important. They are not necessarily fun to write, but they are the underpinning for multiple issues supervisors have to deal with. For example:

  • Position descriptions provide information that is used to determine qualifications for the position – knowledge and experience and physical (and sometimes mental) standards that must be met. For example, criminal investigator positions require emotional and mental stability in addition to the requirements for dexterity, vision, and hearing, etc.
  • Position descriptions establish special requirements, such as the need for a security clearance, necessity for holding certain licenses or certifications, extensive travel, significant amounts of overtime, and more. While some of these are not qualifications per se, they are necessary for successful performance in the position.
  • The position description should be the beginning of the selection process. When you are developing questions for the applicant and the references (yes, plan out questions for the current and past supervisors, too) you should be referring to the position description. This isn’t just to ensure you covered the major duties in your questions, but also that you covered how the work got done. Let’s look at your HR Specialist, GS-13 position: What kind of review did your supervisor conduct of your disciplinary letters? Did you have authority to contact your headquarters to obtain an opinion on a complex topic or were you required to raise these issues with your supervisor first? For a reference you might ask, when Mr./Ms. ______ prepared disciplinary letters, what kind of review did you conduct?
  • The position description should be the first step in the interview. Assuming you have an in-person interview, I recommend having the employee read it outside the interview room before you ever begin asking questions. (Please don’t ask them to read it while three people on the panel watch them.) This aids the applicant in understanding what your job is all about, so he provides more responsive answers to your questions. Also, he may have missed some of those special requirements that were mentioned in the job announcement, such as extensive travel, a certain license or certificate, or the ability to walk around the campus on foot to attend meetings. When the applicant sees those in the job description, he may ask questions about that and potentially withdraw if that doesn’t work for him.
  • Employees who occupy positions with physical requirements can be ordered in for physical examinations to determine if they meet the requirement(s) (See 5 CFR 339.203). Physical requirements are set for specific positions. They have to be essential for successful job performance and they must be clearly supported by the actual duties of the position and documented in the position description.  Perhaps you have a group of eight Contract Specialists, GS-12.  Only one of them has to provide service to a group located at a remote site 80 miles away. There’s no reasonable way to get there except to drive, so the individual has to be able to maintain a driver’s license and must also have the capabilities to safely operate a government vehicle. That person could be ordered in for a physical to make sure they could safely perform that function, even though the other seven contract specialists would not be subject to such a requirement.
  • It’s late on Friday, and your friendly HR Specialist left for the day. You’re a manager and you’re not sure if one of your employees is in the bargaining unit. You need to conduct a pre-action interview and you don’t know if you should observe the Weingarten provisions in your contract. Where can you find the information? Normally it’s on the cover sheet of the position description identified as a Bargaining Unit Status (BUS) Code. Or, you just found out about a rush project that needs to be taken care of on Saturday. You offered one of your employees compensatory time if she would come in on Saturday and take care of it, but she declined. Now you’re trying to figure out whether you can require that employee to work extra hours for comp time.  But, you need to know if the employee is Exempt or Non-Exempt to make that decision. That’s conveniently included on the position description cover sheet, too. These decisions depend on what kind of job it is, the authority it has, the controls it operates under, etc.

I could go on, but I think you can see that there are myriad things that position descriptions accomplish. I’m not exaggerating about that being the foundation.  We all know what happens when you have a faulty foundation

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