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Job descriptions: a vital building block for managing staff

Many practices underestimate the importance of writing and updating job descriptions. Done well, they are a crucial tool in maximising the strength of your staff team, writes Fiona Dalziel.

Fiona DazielJob descriptions and contracts of employment are often confused. A job description does not set out the terms of employment (pay, hours, annual leave and so on) but does describe what the practice expects the person in the post actually to do and achieve.

Having this set out in writing will make a host of HR management tasks much simpler. These include:

  • Introducing a new post: everyone knows what the post is for and how it will impact on their own role.
  • Newly promoted co-workers: both the promoted staff member and their colleagues understand their new role and responsibilities, making the process fair, transparent and more likely to succeed.

What's more, the CQC expects all staff to have proper job descriptions. You may be expected to produce these and other relevant personnel information during a CQC inspection.

When job descriptions make the difference

Every team member in a GP practice will benefit from having a job description. This can include partners, especially if individual partners have specific responsibilities.

Key situations where a job description is useful include:

  • Recruitment: your recruitment policy should include the need for up to date job descriptions for all posts. A job description will form the basis of a good person specification (the knowledge, skills, education, experience and capabilities needed to do the job) so that the selection process will compare candidates in a fair and consistent way. This helps protect the practice from claims of discrimination.
  • Practice development plans: in shaping its team to deliver services, the practice will identify changes to existing posts as well as need for new posts.  At this point, job descriptions become a tool for effecting change.
  • Personal development plans: staff appraisals as a review of performance and development are most effective when based on the job description; the job description can be updated and skills gaps identified.
  • Performance management: a job description will make tackling poor performance much more effective. staff without a job description may reasonably claim that they do not know what is expected of them.  Practices using an occupational health service to help manage staff whose health issues affect their capability will find that a job description will help define the outcome of the process.
  • Pay and bonuses: practices who use their appraisal scheme to review pay and bonuses will find that job descriptions help define more clearly whether performance targets are being reached.

Help from Medeconomics

Writing a job description from scratch can seem daunting, and although practices do vary, there is a lot of commonality between posts across practices. Medeconomics has commissioned a series of core job descriptions which can be used as a base template to help you develop your own, practice-specific job descriptions.

Each of the downloadable job descriptions should be regarded as a guide and framework rather than definitive. You can edit each job description to make it work for the requirements of the post in your own practice.

You will find that task-based posts such as practice nurse descriptions are simple to edit because, broadly speaking, you can amend the list of tasks to suit. Broader, more complex posts may vary more, such as practice manager, and some suggested sections in these job descriptions may not be relevant for that role in your practice.

Further suggestions

Additional elements can legitimately and usefully be included in a job description:

  • Special requirements/location: the size of many practices may now mean that any team member may be expected to work across multiple locations in the local area. GPs and nurses may well be required to see patients in their homes and this should be described. Terms relating to the use of car, insurance, reimbursement of expenses etc belong in the written terms in the contract of employment.
  • Person specification: this helps objectively determine whether a candidate will be suitable for a post. Especially if recruiting internally, this will help both applicants and co-workers to see what skills, knowledge, qualifications, experience and capabilities are needed for the post. The recruitment process is then transparent. Both induction into the new post and (for the successful internal applicant) re-aligned relationships with former co-workers will be smoother.
  • Proportion of time: it can be useful to put indicative time proportions on a job description. One task may take up just a few lines in a job description but is actually so key to the role that it will probably take up 50% of the time.

Keep it going

Avoid the temptation to breathe a sigh of relief once you press ‘save’ on the new job description. The document should be updated at least annually as part of the appraisal process.  

You want to have staff who are willing to cross-cover, learn new skills take on new tasks and generally work towards their own and the practice’s goals. Maintain informal reviews and dialogue during the year with your staff. Talk about what’s going well, problems, barriers, solutions and changes as an informal opportunity for review.

This helps with performance review and keeps the job description dynamic.  It also helps avoid ‘that’s not in my job description!’ Additionally, this kind of discussion helps staff understand the difference between the terms in a contract and a job description.

After the discussion, see if the job description requires to be updated.

Update job descriptions:

  • If the team’s structure changes
  • When a co-worker’s job description is changed
  • When a new post is introduced
  • When a new service is introduced
  • When a team member takes on a new task
  • When posts are substantially changed or merged

Helpful tips

Do:

  • Keep the job description as clear and simple as possible.
  • Avoid abbreviations and jargon.
  • Describe the post, not the person in the post.
  • Refer to other posts rather than other individuals.
  • Put in clear accountability which is consistent with other posts on that level.
  • Give the post a meaningful title. Especially when recruiting, a misleading post title. will waste time and resource by attracting inappropriate candidates.

Don’t:

  • Make the job description so brief and vague that it is not clear what the post holder will actually do.
  • Make the job description so specific that it limits flexibility and opportunities
  • Include responsibilities or tasks that belong in another post.

Why does this matter?

The absence of up to date job descriptions can have significant impact on the time a practice spends on managing staff issues. Here are some common situations you could avoid:

  •  Staff who say ‘nobody ever told me I was meant to do that’.
  •  Staff who say ‘I am unclear what is expected of me’.
  •  New staff who say ‘this job is not what I thought it would be’ and leave.
  •  Newly-promoted staff who are not up to the task.
  • Resentful and discontented co-workers who feel they should have been given an internal post instead of the successful candidate.
  • Poor performance you cannot effectively manage.
Why job descriptions make a difference
  • They underpin a recruitment process which is clear and transparent, attracts the right candidates and minimises the risk of discrimination.
  • They help team members to understand their role and responsibilities,  know what is expected of them, and know to whom they are accountable.
  • They are a descriptor of expectations on which to base the annual appraisal.
  • They are vital tool for effective management of poor performance.
  • They are an integral part of planning for team development and reviewing skill mix.

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