Search form

Section 2. Preparing Job Descriptions and Selection Criteria

Learn how to prepare a job description and choose selection criteria in order to improve the hiring process and hire the right person.


Job descriptions and selection criteria help organizations and job applicants understand what is expected from a person in a specific position, and help to determine whether an applicant is a good fit for that position. This section provides a guide for preparing job descriptions and selection criteria that accurately reflect what your organization needs in a position and that will attract the right person to fill it.

Why it's important to carefully develop a job description and selection criteria before you advertise a position

There are a number of reasons why having clear job descriptions and selection criteria are necessary.

  • They define the position for the organization, for potential applicants, and legally. If there's any question about whether a staff member is actually doing her job, or being asked to perform duties that have nothing to do with her position, the job description should clarify the situation. It should also make it clear who's ultimately responsible for specific tasks or areas.

If someone's not doing her job, the job description can become an important tool in helping her to improve. Being able to refer to a list of specific duties and responsibilities makes it easier for a supervisor to get across just where and how a staff member isn't meeting standards, and to discuss what she could do to change that situation.

By the same token, if she's not responding at all, the job description gives the organization a standard to use in documenting the staff member's failure to carry out the duties and responsibilities of her position, and, if necessary, to fire her for non-performance.

  • They give potential job applicants a sense of whether they should apply for the job. The clearer you can be about the requirements, duties, and responsibilities of the job and what kind of person you're looking for, and the better you can represent these in your advertising for the job, the less time you'll have to spend reading applications from inappropriate candidates.
  • The act of developing job descriptions and selection criteria forces you to clarify your thinking about the position, the kind of person you want for it, and the organization itself. Organizations often have to include job descriptions in proposals for new programs or positions. Sometimes, the act of composing the job description changes the whole course of the proposal, as people realize that they can use a position in ways they hadn't considered, or that what they had originally conceived was, in fact, unworkable. A job description can sometimes serve to define a whole program.
  • Having a clear job description and selection criteria will help you write the copy to advertise the position, and will make the interviewers' task easier as well. If interviewers have a clear understanding of the tasks of the position, they can be much clearer about how to find out whether an interviewee can perform those tasks.
  • Most important, a clear job description and selection criteria make it more likely that you'll hire the best person for the job. If you know exactly the person you're looking for, and have a distinct picture of what you want her to do, you're much more likely to find her than if you're simply hoping someone good will turn up.

Preparing a job description

While job descriptions and selection criteria are closely linked, it may make sense to work on the job description first, since that will help you decide what at least some of your selection criteria should be. A job description that includes administering medical treatment is unlikely to suggest hiring someone with a background only in heavy construction, for instance. On the other hand, there may be criteria that are important for any position you hire -- sense of humor, respect for the target population, commitment to social change -- which, stated or unstated, may be as important to you as the particular skills the staff person will need. We'll discuss this issue further later in the section.

There are really three parts to the task of preparing a job description:

  1. Choosing the job title.
  2. Developing a list, often bulleted or numbered, of specific duties and responsibilities that the position requires.
  3. Composing a capsule description of the position, including what it's meant to accomplish, requirements other than specific tasks (e.g., hours per week and expected schedule, whether weekend or evening work is required, necessary travel, etc.), and who the position supervises and reports to. This section may include wage or salary and benefit information as well.

Choosing a job title

It may sound like a small thing, but, in fact, the title you pick for the position can be very important in several ways. First, it can serve to define the job clearly, both for the staff member and for others who deal with him. The choice of title may also have a lot to do with the way the person in the position is regarded in the community.

A Director of Development may be more effective in the community -- getting phone calls returned, making appointments, being invited to sit on committees and boards -- than a Fund-Raiser or Grantwriter, even though all three titles may refer to exactly the same job. By the same token, an Associate or Assistant Director may command more respect than a Director of Development, an Executive Director more than a Director. The perception attached to a particular title carries over to the person bearing that title.

A better title -- one that implies more responsibility or authority -- can attract better candidates, even though the pay may be no different from that of a position with a "lesser" title. One of the reasons for this is that a job title can not only boost self-esteem, but it can also be helpful when a person applies for his next job, making it easier to get a more responsible position.

A job title, then, serves to define the position and to define the place of its holder, both in the organization and in the community. As a result, its choice demands some serious thought. For the sake of example, let's go through the process of developing a job description for a position that we've decided to call Community Health Educator.

Developing a list of specific duties and responsibilities

There are really two steps to generating a list of specific duties and responsibilities. The first is to define the basic elements of the position (i.e., what it is you actually want the person to be able to do, or know, or be good at in order to do her job well. The second is to then identify the specific activities -- all the specific activities -- that the job requires. Let's take our hypothetical job, Community Health Educator, and look at the development of a list of duties and responsibilities for it.

Basic elements of the position

What do you want this person to do and know and be good at? Some of these things are skills related to the job title, which may be learned through education and training or through experience (perhaps in previous positions, perhaps otherwise). Others are skills required by the job which may not be implied in the job title, and some -- personality traits and characteristics -- may not be learned at all.

For a Community Health Educator, the specific skills learned from education and training might be:

  • Teaching and facilitation skills, including a knowledge of appropriate teaching materials for the target population
  • Counseling skills
  • General knowledge of community health issues
  • Understanding of the medical/scientific causes and treatment of particular health problems -- AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, substance use, lack of prenatal care, malnutrition, various forms of mental illness, tobacco-related illnesses, etc.
  • Knowledge of the native language of a non-English-speaking target population. In this hypothetical case, we'll assume Spanish.

(Obviously, not all of these would be necessary for every position, and some might need skills not on this list.)

The skills acquired by experience that you might want a Community Health Educator to have include:

  • Outreach skills
  • Understanding of the community
  • Understanding of the target population
  • Knowing the workings of the health bureaucracy -- HMOs, hospitals, state and federal agencies -- and how to negotiate them
  • Understanding the social causes and potential solutions to particular health problems
  • Familiarity with referral possibilities and procedures

Finally, there are the non-specific skills, traits, and abilities, some learned and some innate, that are required by the job:

  • Clerical and organizational skills -- filing, record-keeping, doing paperwork accurately and on time, etc.
  • Computer literacy
  • Good written and verbal communication skills
  • Self-presentation -- knowing how to act, dress, and communicate with different groups
  • Interpersonal ability -- getting along with and being accepted by the target population, the community, and colleagues; dealing with conflict well; and maintaining a sense of humor

Specific activities required for the position

Now it's time to come up with everything the person in this position will be expected to do. Remember that the list should include absolutely everything, whether it relates directly to the job title or not. For our Community Health Educator, the list might look like this:

  • Develops and offers presentations, in the appropriate language (English or Spanish) and using appropriate materials, on general and specific public health issues -- including (but not necessarily limited to) HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, substance use, stress, nutrition, breast and other types of cancer, and tuberculosis -- to the target population, community groups, populations at risk, other professionals, and the general public.
  • Conducts outreach to groups at risk, particularly in the target population.
  • Counsels individuals on treatment of health and substance-abuse problems, and makes appropriate referrals.
  • Distributes and resupplies written and/or audio-visual information on public health issues to all sites of the organization, other agencies, businesses, and other highly visible sites in the community.
  • Recruits, trains, and supervises small groups of the target population as providers of preventive and other health education in their communities.
  • Testifies at public and legislative hearings on the need for health care, the health problems of the community, and other related issues.
  • Runs an annual Community Health Fair in June.
  • Establishes and maintains contact with the local community of health and human service professionals.
  • Meets regularly with other staff of the organization to develop strategies for serving the community.
  • Spends at least 50 hours per year engaged in professional development activities.
  • Maintains up-to-date computer database of contacts and presentations, including the number of contact hours per week.
  • Completes all paperwork required for the position in the prescribed time.
  • Attends weekly staff meetings.
  • Attends bimonthly supervision sessions with the Program Director.
  • Serves on the Board's Public Health Committee, and attends full Board meetings upon request.
  • Answers office phones two hours per week.
  • Performs any other duties as required by the Executive Director.

This is a long list, but remember that these are all the activities you think this person will need to perform in this position. She may not do all of them at any one time. A year may go by without some of them being done, depending on the needs of the community and of the organization, but they're all part of her job, and she may need to practice any or all of them at a given time.

Some of these duties -- staff meetings, supervision, answering office phones, perhaps committee service -- are not unique to this position, but are required of everyone in the organization. Others -- outreach, maintaining contacts in the community, distributing health literature, paperwork -- are ongoing, and happen in the daily course of the job. And notice the last one: that's a catch-all, in case anything comes up that no one thought of, or in case the organization somehow changes before job descriptions can be readjusted.

Writing the capsule description

Now that we have a job title and have come up with a list of activities and responsibilities to go with it, it's time to tackle the capsule description. This will be a two-or -three sentence description of the job and its purpose, as well as any other major responsibilities it entails. The capsule description also includes some of the nitty-gritty information about the position (hours per week, schedule requirements, flexibility or lack thereof, salary or hourly wage, benefits, etc.), and specifies who supervises it. The capsule description thus gives an overview of the position and makes clear where it falls in the organization and what its logistics are.

Here's a try at a capsule description of our Community Health Educator position.

The Community Health Educator acts as the bridge between the organization and the community on issues relating to public and individual health. He or she, in addition to presenting health issues and education to the public in a variety of ways, counsels and makes referrals in matters of individual health care, and also recruits and trains members of the community to act as resources for health information.

The Community Health Educator reports to the Program Director. This is a full-time position (40 hours per week), and includes some evening and weekend hours. Scheduling is flexible within limits. Competitive salary and benefit package.

Whether or not to include the actual salary or wages and benefits in the job description is a decision that's up to each organization. If there's an official salary range for a position, it's often included. If the salary is particularly low, or if it's going to depend on who gets hired, it may not be. A particular salary range may attract some people and put off others. A high salary may indicate to some people that the position requires more work or responsibility than they want to take on, or that the organization is too "establishment." A low salary, on the other hand, may simply not be livable for people with families or other responsibilities. What you choose to do will depend on your circumstances.

The job description is complete, but there are still some important questions left to ask:

  • Does this job description make sense? Do all the functions of this position hang together?
  • Does it describe a job that can be done well by one person in the time she's given to work at it (i.e. are there unreasonable expectations)?
  • Does the organization have the resources to support the position (the time of other staff members, enough money to pay a salary consistent with what's required, materials, space, etc.)?
  • Is the schedule reasonable?
  • Was the supervisor for this position chosen for logical reasons based on how the organization operates, rather than merely for convenience or to massage someone's ego?
  • Does the supervisor actually have the time and expertise to supervise this position?
  • Will the position accomplish what the organization designed it to?

If you can comfortably answer "yes" to all of these questions, you've done a great job, and you can use your job description with confidence, both for recruiting applicants and for defining the position once you've hired someone. If some of your answers are "no" or "I'm not sure," then go back and deal with those issues right now, before you start the hiring process. The amount of time you spend now will only be a tiny fraction of the time those "no's" will cost you later, and won't even be in the same universe when it comes to the amount of hassle you'll save. Work with it until you know it's right -- you won't be sorry.

Developing selection criteria

Selection criteria for a position will generally fall under four headings: education and other formal credentials; job-specific skills and knowledge; non-job-specific skills and knowledge; and personal attributes and traits. And once you have a job description to work from, it should be a piece of cake to develop selection criteria, right? Well...yes and no. First of all, selection criteria aren't exactly the same as qualifications.

Qualifications are the credentials and experience that are stated as preferred or required for whomever you hire for the position. Generally, they'll go into your advertising, so that potential applicants will know whether they're eligible for the job or not, and they're the standard you'll use in screening applications. To some extent, especially if you have public funding, you're legally bound to them, and you could be challenged, or even sued for discrimination if you hire someone who doesn't have them over someone who does. (A lot of this depends on circumstance, and you're reasonably safe if you're not discriminating and can defend your choice. A lawsuit, however, even one you win, costs an organization time and money, both of which might be in short supply.)

But selection criteria might not be limited to qualifications. Your organization might want a particular kind of person as a staff member -- someone who's warm and engaging, for instance, or who will treat participants and everyone else with respect, or who just seems astute in certain ways. Or you might prefer someone who comes out of a particular background, or whose politics mesh with those of the organization and its staff members, or whose personal style fits in with those of the rest of the staff.

These criteria aren't even always conscious...but they should be. It's important to analyze and understand what your unspoken criteria are as well as your spoken ones, so that you can be clear about why you're hiring who you're hiring, rather than talking about "hunches" or "feelings" when you're arguing for your choice.

In developing qualifications, there are two ways to go: you can be as specific as possible, because you feel you know exactly what a person will need to do the job well; or you can be as general as possible, hoping to attract someone who may not look exactly right on paper, but who will in fact be exactly right once they get into the position. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and there's also a way to hedge your bets.

Qualifications can be either "required" or "preferred." If they're required, then no one without them will apply, and you're legally bound to them if you're operating under those kinds of restrictions (public education, many government agencies, and other publicly funded organizations are usually subject to such regulations). If they're preferred, then you have a lot of discretion about whether someone actually needs them or not. You can require some qualifications and prefer others. If you use "preferred" for at least some qualifications, you may have to read through more applications, but you may also find a gem where you least expect it.

Education and other formal credentials

How important are educational and other formal credentials to performing the duties in this job description or to the standing of the position? Do you simply require all your staff to have college or advanced degrees? For some positions, these kinds of questions have obvious answers: if you're looking for a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer, she'll need not only specific degrees but other certifications -- such as passing the Bar Exam -- in order to legally do the job at all. A psychologist or social worker needs certain academic and other credentials in order to be reimbursed for his work by insurance companies. But how about a teacher in a community-run school or an adult education program? Or a job counselor in an employment training agency? What does the person actually need, and are you possibly depriving your organization of someone really wonderful by requiring certain degrees? (Here's where "preferred" can be really useful.)

On the other hand, how will this person be viewed in the community? Who will she have to deal with as a colleague, as an advisor or consultant, or as a supervisor? Is it important for her credibility that she have academic credentials that match or exceed those of others in the community or in her field? If so, then those credentials must be required.

Our Community Health Educator, for instance, probably needs a degree in Education, Counseling, Public Health, Social Work, or something similar. Why does she need it? She's being asked to testify before legislative committees, to network with colleagues in the community, to make community and other presentations. She may not need the degree in order to do these things well, but she definitely needs it for credibility in these and other situations. Hiring someone without a degree in an appropriate area would be doing that person a disservice in this case, because it would put her at an immediate disadvantage in a number of situations.

Job-specific skills and knowledge

These are the skills and knowledge directly related to the performance of the job you're hiring for. A doctor needs to know about various diseases and medical conditions, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, etc., and to be able to stitch up a wound, take blood pressure accurately, and give an injection in order to treat patients; a mason has to know the proportions of sand, water, and lime in different mixtures of mortar used for different purposes, and to be able to lay a straight and level line of brick or stone in order to build a wall. The fact that they both need to be able to do some basic math is not specific to either of their jobs, even though they couldn't do those jobs without it.

If you've done your job, you have a job description that should tell you just what the skills and knowledge are that the person you're hiring will need. Let's look at our Community Health Educator again, and determine what job-specific skills and knowledge she needs.

According to the list of duties and responsibilities we developed for the position, the major part of the job revolves around teaching and counseling skills, particularly on health issues. The ideal candidate, then, would probably have some teaching experience, some counseling experience, and a knowledge of health issues, in addition to her degree in a related area, if you've decided upon that.

So which of these criteria will you require, which will you prefer, and which will you ignore? Unfortunately, you usually have to deal with the difference between "ideal" and "actual." If you can find a person with all these qualifications, and that person is who you want, that's great. But, in reality, it's more likely that you'll find a person you really like who has only some of these particular credentials.

The question you have to resolve here is what's most important to you. If the person you want has no health experience, for instance, are you willing to train her or get her trained in that area in return for the other assets -- perhaps personality traits, perhaps exemplary teaching skills -- she brings to the job? What skills or experience would you absolutely require regardless of how much you liked her in every other way? Teaching expertise? A welcoming personality? Knowledge of the workings of the health care system? It depends on the perspective of your organization, on what you believe can be easily learned in a relatively short time, and on what you regard as most important for this person to accomplish.

When money for health education became available statewide from a tax on tobacco products, an adult literacy program received funding to run a health education program for its students and the community. The coordinator chosen for the program was already a staff member of the organization. While she had no direct experience in health education, she was an excellent teacher, had a great personal interest in health, and was highly organized. Within six months, she had become so well-versed in health-related issues and so knowledgeable about particular areas -- smoking cessation, stress reduction, breast cancer, and others -- that health professionals in the community were coming to her for advice. She created a program that was recognized as one of the best in the state, even though she'd had no previous direct experience or education in the health field.

Non-job-specific skills and knowledge

Just as both the doctor and the mason need basic math skills, everyone needs skills and knowledge that aren't intrinsically related to his job title, but are required to do the job.

Some examples of these include...

  • Familiarity with the target community, or with similar communities
  • Experience in a related, but not directly related, area of work
  • Knowledge of a particular language
  • Understanding of particular systems and how to negotiate them -- state bureaucracy, private foundations, health care delivery, public schools -- or of systems in general
  • Excellent writing and/or public speaking skills
  • Understanding of a particular philosophy that your organization follows: Jungian psychology, participatory education, Marxist economics, etc.
  • Knowledge of public relations
  • Familiarity with computers or other technology, or with particular software
  • Clerical skills
  • Organizational skills

The Community Health Educator, for instance, would have to have good communication skills (for public presentations, testimony, networking, and outreach), clerical skills, a high degree of organization (paperwork, record-keeping, juggling a lot of different responsibilities), and computer literacy (maintaining a database). She would also need an understanding of the state and/or local health bureaucracy, familiarity with the target or similar communities, and, according to her job description, fluency in Spanish.

Some of these skills may not be included in job descriptions or selection criteria, because it's assumed that anyone of a certain educational or occupational level will have them. It's dangerous to make that kind of assumption, however; if you don't ask for what you want, there's a good chance you won't get it. Be direct about what the position demands, and you're more likely to hire someone who can handle it.

Personal attributes and traits

There are a number of characteristics which are neither learned nor acquired by experience, but are nonetheless important for success in particular positions. There are others you might expect from anyone in your organization, which reflect your organizational character and the things you believe in. Some of these may not fall in the area of qualifications, but many do. These could include...

  • Initiative: the ability to get started and work independently when necessary, and to come up with ideas and carry them out.
  • The ability to get along with a wide range of people, including other staff and community members, and to communicate respect to everyone.
  • A sense of humor.
  • Patience.
  • A neat and well-groomed appearance. (In some positions, this could be a negative rather than a positive.)
  • Passion for the organization's cause or issue.
  • Particular characteristics of birth or physique. (Does the position require heavy lifting? Dance therapy?)
  • Particular racial or ethnic characteristics, gender, or residence.. You'd be unlikely to hire a man as a sexual abuse counselor for battered women, for example; or you might want to hire someone from the community you're targeting in order to increase your program's credibility in that community.
  • Possession of one's own transportation, and willingness to use it on the job.
  • Willingness to travel, work odd hours, etc..

Our Community Health Educator's qualifications would probably include initiative -- especially if she's expected to start the program from scratch -- and the ability to get along with people. But it's in this category of criteria that those unspoken standards come into play. The applicant's personality may have a lot to do with whether she gets hired or not, even though that's not directly stated. How she dresses may be important -- not messily, but not too well, either, so that she doesn't put off or intimidate the low-income people with whom she's working. And there's that intuitive flash that individuals or hiring committees sometimes get that says "hire this person" or "don't touch this applicant with a ten-foot pole." That's why it's important to be conscious of all your criteria.

What criteria you should use -- both publicly and privately -- depends on what's most important to you. If a sense of humor is essential, then say so. If it would be nice, but there's already a long list ahead of it, let it go. What are the real preferences of the organization?

  • Does the organization value certain personal attributes over knowledge and/or experience?
  • Does it value certain kinds of experience more than others? (Some organizations will go out of their way to hire people who've been in the Peace Corps, for instance, because they feel that the experience leaves people with skills and attitudes that lead to great competence in community work.)
  • Does it assume that one body of knowledge -- understanding of the causes and treatment of specific health conditions, for example -- can be picked up more easily than another -- e.g., understanding of low income or ethnic communities? Or vice versa?
  • Does it have a philosophical commitment to hiring people with certain backgrounds or disabilities, or to diversity in general?

The answers to all of these questions will affect how selection criteria are chosen and applied and how job applicants are rated in an organization's hiring process. Ultimately, the selection criteria should...

  • Be manageable: there shouldn't be so many that they'll severely limit the number of people who can apply, nor so few that they don't leave you with any way to judge applicants.
  • Conform to whatever legal standards to which you are subject.
  • Look like the profile of someone who could do a great job in the position, and whom you'd want to work with.

In Summary

Preparing a job description and choosing selection criteria -- both spoken and unspoken -- carefully and consciously are important elements in hiring, especially for a new position. The work you do on these preliminary tasks will help you define the position clearly and make the whole hiring process easier. But most important, it will make it far more likely that you'll hire exactly the right person for the job; and that's the whole point of the hiring process.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

EMSA consulting firm for educational institutions. Good sample job description.

Michigan Health and Hospital Association -- discussion of writing job descriptions.

Ohio State University--Instructions and example -- writing job descriptions for small businesses.