Writing a job description and person specification


Like all organisations, Massey must continually decide how to best organise and structure its human resources to assist it to meet its goals and objectives.  It does so, first by deciding the types of roles (‘jobs’ or ‘positions’) that are needed to achieve its goals and objectives and, secondly, by arranging these roles into appropriate structures, i.e. colleges, schools, sections and teams, which allows each position to make its special contribution to Massey’s overall goals and success. To ensure that each position is clearly defined, we need well written, accurate and up-to-date job descriptions.

What is a job description? 

A job description is a written statement which clearly defines the purpose and the content of a particular job or position, i.e. it describes the reason the position exists and the specific contributions the position makes to the university.  These contributions are defined as ‘key accountabilities’ (sometimes called ‘key result areas’) of the position.  A job description also describes the particular duties and responsibilities required to be carried out by the job holder, which in turn enable them to achieve particular outcomes and contributions defined by each key accountability statement.  Finally, a job description also confirms the job or position title, and the position to which it reports in Massey’s organisation structure.    

A job description is a generic description for a group of like-positions, such as Lecturer or Academic Administrator, regardless of which School/Institute each position resides in.  A position description, on the other hand, is very specific to a particular position in a particular department, and may contain duties and responsibilities that are not contained in the generic ‘job description’.  However, for the purpose of this guide, the term ‘job description’ shall be used to cover both purposes, and the terms job and position shall be used interchangeably.      

What are the other uses of a job description?

Besides providing a clear description and understanding of each position in Massey’s organisation structure, there are a number of other important uses for a well defined job description.  

Recruitment and Selection

An accurate and complete job description will enable the University to accurately describe the necessary qualifications, skills, knowledge, abilities and personal attributes, behaviours and/or competencies a job applicant should be judged to possess in order to be appointed to a position and to start making a significant contribution to the position within an appropriate and reasonable time-frame following their appointment.  This description is called a person specification (see separate section below) and, together with the job description, will assist Massey to recruit and appoint appropriately qualified and skilled employees (‘human resources’) to fill those positions.

Job Evaluation

The detail contained in the job description and person specification contributes important information which enables Massey to evaluate (through a job evaluation methodology) the relative size of all general staff positions.  This in turn helps Massey to determine what salary grade or range a general staff position fits into; this in turn influences staff remuneration decisions.   

Performance Review and Planning

All Massey staff are expected to skillfully perform their duties and responsibilities and achieve specific outcomes which together make up their key accountabilities.  Individual performance objectives, which are consistent with the key accountabilities of the job description, are defined and agreed to as part of Massey’s annual Performance Review and Planning process, known as PRP.  The job description provides a focus for discussion so that the manager and staff member have a shared understanding of the nature and scope of the position and of what is expected of the staff member.    

Training and Development

Through the PRP process an individual’s initial training and development needs are assessed primarily against the requirements of their job description and person specification.  In subsequent years the focus of the PRP will be on (a) how well the individual performed their duties and responsibilities over the previous 12 months; (b) what competency gaps are deemed to exist, and (c) consideration of an individual’s career aspirations and developing a personalised plan for professional career growth and advancement (including ‘Academic Promotions’).   

A job description must be current for these important functions to be carried out effectively.

What is a Person Specification?

A person specification states the minimum set of capabilities a ‘person’ (the job holder) needs to possess (and demonstrate) in order to be appointed to a position. In addition it outlines any pre-employment checks that require clearance in order to be appointed to the position.  Thus, the primary use of a person specification is to assist in the recruitment and selection of new staff. 

Although there is some overlap with the terms used to describe these particular areas of capability, a person specification would normally address the minimum set of qualifications, experience, skills, knowledge, abilities, personal attributes, competencies and behaviours required for someone to be appointed to a position.  Given the varying array of definitions used for each of these terms, it is not surprising that these are sometimes used interchangeably or encompass one-another.    

The information contained in the person specification will be used to create a job advertisement and, most importantly, to confirm the criteria and evidence against which applicant’s suitability for appointment is to be judged.  Subsequent to the appointment, the person specification will also be used to commence the PRP process, and as a basis for identifying the appointee’s training needs.  

Job description template and samples

Massey has established a specific format which is to be used when writing or revising job descriptions. 

Job description template  

Sample job descriptions & person specifications

1. Job Title

A job title should provide an immediate and recognisable indication of the general nature and purpose of a position.  For example, a job title which includes the word Secretary, or Administrator, or Electrician, or Lecturer, will gain the immediate and widespread understanding of most people.  Add “Legal” to the title of secretary, and further clarity is gained about the particular nature of the position. 

However, general staff titles that are unnecessarily long or detailed, and/or unnecessarily original, can be confusing by implying that like-jobs are not alike because they have different titles.  A proliferation of unnecessary job titles is also unhelpful.  Massey has a variety of general staff functions, but finite types of jobs within each function. 

It is therefore important to keep job titles meaningful but, at the same time, as simple and uncluttered as possible.  For example, for a secretarial position located in an academic School/Institute, it is not necessary to call the position ‘School Secretary’ or ‘Institute Secretary’ because the job description already discloses the location, i.e. the ‘School/Institute’ and ‘Campus’ of the position, and so the title ‘Secretary’ will suffice.  It may be preferable to retain the title of ‘Academic Administrator’ if it is important to differentiate that position from a general administrator in the same School/Institute.  Similarly, if the primary role of a position is to provide secretarial support to a Head of School, then the title ‘Head of School Secretary’ may be appropriate to distinguish it from other secretarial positions in the school; it may also distinguish the position’s seniority.

There will also be instances where a position will involve two significant but unrelated functions, both of which can be appropriately reflected in the position title, e.g. Secretary/Financial Administrator, Secretary/Administrator, and Administrator/Field Work Coordinator.  

2. School/Institute & Campus

Insert the name of the School/Institute of which the position is immediately a part of, and the particular campus or location where the position resides e.g. ‘Academic Director’s Office, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Manawatu’.  

3. Responsible to

Insert the title of the job to which the position reports, e.g. the ‘Manager, Student Counselling’ on the Manawatu campus reports to the ‘Regional Registrar Campus Life, Manawatu’.  Note: do not include the name of the manager to whom the position reports.

4. Purpose

This is a concise (one or two sentence) statement explaining, first, the overall objective of the position, i.e. why it exists, what it contributes to or is expected to accomplish, and secondly, the main area of activity (usually reflected in the job title) undertaken to enable the overall objective of the position to be achieved. 

Example

Careers Advisor

Help enhance the employability outcomes of Massey University students, both internal and distance, by assisting them to make informed and appropriate academic, career development and employment decisions, and by facilitating timely contact with relevant employers.   

The overall objective of the Careers Advisor is to:

“Help enhance the employability outcomes of Massey University students, both internal and distance”.

The main areas of activity which help fulfill the overall objective of the position are:

“By assisting them [the students] to make informed and appropriate academic, career development and employment decisions, and by facilitating timely contact with relevant employers”.

Example

Academic Administrator

Support the core academic activity and efficient operation of the School and its programmes by providing an extensive range of administrative services to the Head of School, academic staff and students in the School.    

The overall objective of the Academic Administrator is to:

“Support the core academic activity and efficient operating of the School and its programmes”.

The main area of activity, which helps to fulfill the overall objective of the position  is:

“By providing an extensive range of administrative services to the Head of School, academic staff and students in the School”.

5. Key Accountabilities

Each position will generally have between three and eight key accountabilities (having a limited number adds clarity to the job description).  Sometimes called ‘key result areas’, these are the main areas of contribution that the position makes to the overall purpose and success of the work unit, School/Institute, and college or division of the University.  In effect, key accountabilities represent a breakdown of the position’s Purpose Statement into more specific areas of contribution.  They describe the main types of outcomes expected of the job, i.e. the key areas of work activity in which the job holder is expected to achieve results.
 
Each key accountability statement should be expressed in a similar way to the ‘Purpose Statement’ for the position, i.e. first, by defining the key outcome expected and, secondly, by listing the key activities (duties and responsibilities) of the position which, when carried out effectively, will enable the job holder to achieve the key outcomes expected of the position.  

Each key accountability statement should be set out as follows:

 1.      To:       ..........................................................................................................
    (Outcome)  ..........................................................................................................
          By:      ..........................................................................................................
     (Activity)   .........................................................................................................

Examples:

Career Advisor

Ensure Massey students and recent graduates have access to appropriate, up-to-date and relevant career information and advice that match their interests, skills and knowledge, by:

  • Assessing student’s individual needs through one to one discussions and utilising appropriate career assessment instruments to assess and explore career aptitude;
  • Developing and maintaining links with organisations and encouraging them to promote employment opportunities to students and alumni through a range of targeted expos and on campus recruitment activities;
  • Making resources available to students that facilitate effective job search; and
  • Obtaining, creating and maintaining high quality, up to date and relevant written and web based material on all aspects of career choice; job search, recruitment and selection; further study, and labour market information.  

Health & Safety Advisor

Ensure laboratory design and practice complies with the requirements of Health and Safety and Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) legislation by:

  • Evaluating laboratory practice and compliance;
  • Assisting with laboratory design, the prioritisation of maintenance requirements and the identification of additional laboratory engineering controls;
  • Ensuring that hazardous substances controls meet the Code of Practice for CRI and University Exempt Laboratories;
  • Coordinating courses and training for teaching staff using hazardous substances, isotopes, or irradiating apparatus.  
Using a simple label or heading instead of a full accountability statement

While a full accountability statement (written in the manner described above) is preferred in order to capture and describe the types of outcomes expected, a simple label or heading is also acceptable, under which the key duties and responsibilities are to be provided. 

Example:

Instead of the full accountability statements given above for Career Advisor and Health and Safety Advisor respectively, the following labels or headings could instead be used, under which the key activities (duties and responsibilities) are to be listed:

  • Career Information Availability and Advice
  • Laboratory Design and Practice Compliance

Thus, each key accountability would look like: 

Career Advisor

Career Information Availability and Advice

  • Assessing student’s individual needs through one to one discussions and utilising appropriate career assessment instruments to assess and explore career aptitude;
  • Developing and maintaining links with organisations and encouraging them to promote employment opportunities to students and alumni through a range of targeted expos and on campus recruitment activities;
  • Making resources available to students that facilitate effective job search; and
  • Obtaining, creating and maintaining high quality, up to date and relevant written and web based material on all aspects of career choice; job search, recruitment and selection; further study, and labour market information.  

Health & Safety Advisor

Laboratory Design and Practice Compliance

  • Evaluating laboratory practice and compliance;
  • Assisting with laboratory design, the prioritisation of maintenance requirements and the identification of additional laboratory engineering controls;
  • Ensuring that hazardous substances controls meet the Code of Practice for CRI and University Exempt Laboratories;
  • Coordinating courses and training for teaching staff using hazardous substances, isotopes, or irradiating apparatus.  
Example:

All academic positions that require both teaching and research, i.e. all PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund) eligible positions from Lecturer to Professor, will undertake a range of duties and responsibilities, and be expected to achieve key outcomes in, each of the following areas:

  • Teaching
  • Supervision
  • Research
  • Service *

* Service is sometimes broken down into ‘Service to the Community’ and ‘University Responsibilities’ or similar labels.

While these are the commonly used and recognised terms that describe the key areas of academic activity and contribution, the specific contributions for each are mostly defined by the criteria and evidence for ‘Teaching’ (including Supervision), ‘Research/Scholarship’ and ‘Service’ contained in the University’s Academic Promotions Round Booklet.  This includes the ‘Academic Outputs Database – Category Descriptions’ for research, which are appended to the Promotions booklet.  

Example: 

For a Secretary or Administrator the following labels or headings are commonly used to confirm the key areas of activity:

  • Secretarial Support to Head of School
  • Administration Support to School
  • Reception / Front of House
  • Financial Administration
  • Staffing Administration
  • Academic Programmes Administration
  • Word-processing
  • Committee Servicing

While using labels or headings instead of full accountability statements does not provide a complete indication of the type of outcomes expected from each area of activity, it is reasonably expected that such roles are accountable for, and are judged by, how effective, efficient, helpful, accurate, thorough, complete and timely the secretarial and administrative support is. 

6. Date

To ensure that job descriptions remain of use for each of the purposes outlined above, it is important that they remain current, i.e. they should be updated regularly or at least annually as part of the PRP process.  The ‘month’ and ‘year’ of the last update should be added at the bottom of the job description.   

Writing a person specification

Using various headings contained in the person specification template, list each of the minimum person requirements necessary for a job applicant to be appointed to the position.  In particular, the following questions should be answered:

Qualifications

Q. What particular qualifications are required, if any?  Examples:

  • Relevant Bachelor’s degree
  • Current practicing certificate

In some cases it is preferable to distinguish between what is an absolute requirement and what may also be preferred as a minimum person-requirement.  Example: 

  • Bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field, but a Masters degree preferred  

Experience

Q. What particular experience is considered essential for someone to be able to step into the advertised position?  Examples:

  • Minimum of 3 years experience as a personal assistant to an executive level manager in a medium to large organisation, preferably in the tertiary education sector;
  • Minimum of 5 years experience in resource and environmental planning law, preferably within the New Zealand context.   

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities, Personal Attributes, Competencies, Behaviours: 

Examples:

  • Proven leadership skills
  • High level financial management skills
  • Excellent presentation skills
  • Results focused
  • Attention to detail
  • Comprehensive knowledge of the Resource Management Act
  • Extensive knowledge of employment case law and decisions
  • Ability to type 120 words per minute
  • Shorthand an advantage
  • Ability to relate well to a range of people at all levels
  • Ability to adjust communications style to different audiences
  • High level negotiation skills and proven ability to reach agreement
  • Is able to influence or change the opinions of others to reach consensus or a common agreement
  • High degree of empathy for others
  • Sound judgment and decision making amongst competing demands
  • Considers the views of others in reaching decisions
  • Takes pride in grooming and presentation
  • Always greets clients with in a polite, courteous and helpful manner
  • Ability to link long-range visions and strategies to current activity
  • Can understand the feelings of others people and comprehend why others act and feel as they do
  • Take responsibility for own work and maintains high personal and professional standards

NB. The above is not an exhaustive list, and represents a random range of examples only.

The range of descriptors that may be used to define the skills, knowledge, abilities, personal attributes, competencies and behaviours required for an appointment to a particular job can be endless.  It is therefore important to focus only on those that are essential to the position and can be reasonably verified and assessed against each job applicant.

To assist in identifying particular behavioural competencies for inclusion in a person specification, refer to the competencies bank.

Pre-employment checks

It is also appropriate to add any additional pre-employment checks that the position requires e.g. criminal and traffic convictions (security) check, credit history check, health assessment check. This will ensure clear identification of the criteria is understood in terms of prospective applicants viewing the job description.

Statements for each of the three additional pre-employment checks are available in the job description template and should only be included in the finalised job description if the position requires one or more of these checks.

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