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Veterinarian Technician April 2007 (Vol 28, No 4) Focus: Summer Issues

Management Matters: "Creating Accurate Job Descriptions"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    Job descriptions have not always been "in vogue." It used to be assumed that even if the details of their position were not accurately described in a job description, most employees knew what they spent their time doing. However, most managers have come to the understanding that job descriptions are important, from recruiting and hiring to evaluating performance to, ultimately, coaching and counseling. In my professional career, I have created or filled positions that needed job descriptions developed from scratch. As a manager, I have had to keep the descriptions of the positions reporting to me current. And I have learned that knowing what you do (or what someone else does) and writing an accurate job description are two different things. Whether your practice already uses job descriptions or is just starting to think about it, there are two things to keep in mind that will simplify the manager's task of keeping the descriptions accurate: (1) most job descriptions are "works in progress," meaning that the definition of the job will constantly be evolving and changing, and (2) the person currently doing the job is the best source of information to help create and revise the description.

    Likely the most dreaded phrase in the workplace is, "That's not my job." If your employees are tempted to utter these words, it may be that they do not know exactly what their jobs are because their job descriptions are outdated, inaccurate, or even nonexistent. Job descriptions — more importantly, accurate job descriptions — do more than give a manager a basis for measuring an employee's performance; they give employees ownership of and accountability for specific tasks. This accountability starts with the description itself. By involving employees in the process of creating and maintaining their own job descriptions, you can help solidify their commitment to doing their jobs to the fullest. Although management must oversee the process and approve the final product, the person doing the job should have the most input on the creation of the job description.

    The Product

    Regardless of whether your practice already has job descriptions in place or is starting from scratch, certain elements should be included in every description. Marsha L. Heinke, DVM, EA, CPA, CVPM, author of Practice Made Perfect: A Guide to Veterinary Practice Management, advises incorporating the following list of elements into all job descriptions1:

    • Position title — Every employee should have a title, even in a small practice. This helps to establish a job identity for the employee. After all, every person and every job is important to the function of the entire practice, especially if there are only a handful of employees.
    • Summary — This section should be a brief overview of the position, including major goals and objectives. To aid in creating this portion of the job description, ask yourself: What is the employee supposed to accomplish for the benefit of the organization?
    • List of duties and responsibilities —For this portion, list broad categories that are then broken down into smaller tasks. For example, under the category "nursing," you might list "administering medications," "collecting lab samples," and similar tasks. The tasks should also include the physical requirements of the job, such as being able to lift a 50-lb (22.7-kg) animal.
    • Description of necessary skills and qualifications — This section should in­clude requirements for experience, ad­vanced certification, special knowl­edge, or education. It should also list personal qualities that are needed for the job, as long as these characteristics are necessary for ade­quate job performance. As Dr. Heinke explains, a job description for a kennel assistant should state that the job requires handling a variety of different animal species, so a person who is afraid of unfamiliar animals should not work in this position.
    • Description of accountability — This section describes who the employee directly reports to and thus who will determine whether the employee is performing the job appropriately. It should also list any additional author­­ity inherent in the position. For ex­ample, the job description for a manager should include any positions that report to the manager.

    The Process

    Developing an updated or new job description can be accomplished in many different ways. For an existing job description, it may be as simple as handing out a copy of the current document to each person doing that job and asking him or her to revise or add content. If any of the elements listed above are missing, be sure to point out that you need input on those aspects. The most difficult part may be allotting the right amount of time for your employees to complete the project. If you have several employees who do the same job, holding an hour-long group meeting away from the hustle and bustle of the clinic can result in some good brainstorming and a finished product.

    If a new job description is being developed, the process will be a bit more time consuming. There are several different methods of collecting the information you need to make sure the description is accurate. The following list outlines the main steps of the process, but the method in which they are accomplished is up to you:

    • Prepare (e.g., create a job description worksheet, notify employees that their input will be requested)
    • Gather information (e.g., send out the worksheet and set a time limit for completion, observe employees, have employees keep a daily log, meet individually with each em­ployee to review or complete the worksheet)
    • Create a rough draft of the job description based on input from all employees
    • Send out the rough draft for further review
    • Meet as a group to polish the final draft (if there are multiple people doing the same job)

    At each point during the job analysis, the employees provide the information, and the manager guides the process and ultimately approves the final product.

    The Paperwork

    Before a job description can be created, the job must be analyzed to identify its components. Many different methods can be used to start the analysis process and get your employees headed in the right direction. For example, Heinke has developed a worksheet based on the major components above. Each section leaves space for content to be written in by the employee. The worksheet asks for the employee's input on the following elements:

    • Position title
    • General description of the position
    • Position requirements/skills/physical demands
    • Job title of individual(s) the position reports to
    • Job title(s) of individual(s) the position supervises
    • Essential functions of the position and time percentage for each
    • Other duties of the position and time percentage for each
    • Description of the physical aspects of the work environment (e.g., lighting and temperature of the work area; exposure to chemicals, anesthetic agents, or noise)
    • Continuing education/training re­quirements

    The worksheet you develop may be more or less detailed and could in­clude your general knowledge of the position as a starting point for discussion (see the sample worksheet on page 262).

    Even a relatively simple job analysis worksheet will take time to fill out. Ideally, each employee should be allowed some undisturbed time to complete the form. When the process is started from scratch, a group meeting is likely to be overwhelmed with comments and suggestions and can run much longer than is reasonable during a typical business day.

    As a manager, you have several options to ensure that employees have enough time to fill out the worksheet and get it done in a timely fashion. You can allow them a certain time limit, such as a week or two, to complete the worksheet as time allows during their shifts. Or you can schedule individual meetings with each employee in which you fill out the worksheet together. Another suggestion is to combine both methods: Allot a period of time for employees to work on their answers, and then have them bring their worksheets to the individual meetings, where you can finish any incomplete sections or revise completed ones together, as necessary.

    After each employee lists the tasks he or she performs, it is the manager's job to ensure that the finished job description includes wording that makes it clear to both employer and employee how the job should be done in accordance with the standards of the practice and when it is considered complete. For example, if a job in­volves responding to client phone call messages, ensure that the job description indicates that these calls should be prioritized accurately and re­sponded to within a specific time frame (e.g., 5 minutes for an emergency, 20 minutes for an update on a patient in the hospital, 1 hour for an answer to a general question or to respond to a client calling in from home with an update on their previously ill pet that is now recovered).

    The Personal Touch

    Another method that can be used during a job analysis is personal observation by the manager of the employee in the specific position. In this method, the manager follows the employee during a typical day to document the tasks performed. This approach is time intensive on the part of the manager, but it can lead to some interesting insight into the position. The manager should explain the purpose of the "shadowing" ahead of time so the employee understands that the manager wants a true picture of the duties performed and is not grading his or her performance.

    The Proof

    Another way to begin documenting the tasks of a position or to verify the accuracy of a job description is to require the employee to complete a daily log of activities. Although this can be labor intensive for the employee, it is a great way to determine how each employee spends his or her time, and it can lead to some good ideas on how to improve general time management. For 1 week, ask employees to keep a running log of their daily activities and to include how many minutes they spend on each task. For example, a receptionist's daily log might start like this:

    7:00 am Opened clinic doors

    7:00-7:08 Counted cash drawer and verified closing report

    7:08-7:12 Took in drop-off patient

    7:12-7:13 Cleaned up puddle in lobby from patient

    A technician's log would obviously reflect other tasks, such as the following:

    3:00 pm Clocked in for shift

    3:00-3:15 Completed rounds on in-hospital patients

    3:15-3:18 Collected blood from out­going patient during appointment, and then explained to the client why the
    white dog has a little bruise now

    The Polishing

    Gaining feedback and clarifying employees' responses in person is critical regardless of the method used. If a job description is brand-new, no matter whether it has been created by personally observing employees' work habits or by collating responses from individual employee worksheets or daily log entries, it should be considered a rough draft until a group meeting can be held to make sure there are no changes that need to be addressed. This process can be streamlined by sending the rough draft out before the meeting to solicit changes in writing. Individual feedback from all the employees working in the position can then be incorporated into a second draft before the meeting. When the final draft is finished, all employees should get a copy. A signed original should be kept in the em­ployee's personnel file for documentation purposes.

    The Profit

    The process of creating or updating job descriptions can be an educational one. It can open your eyes as to what your employees are spending the most time on, and you may learn that tasks you thought belonged to one job actually belong to another position in the practice. As a result, you may discover ways of improving team efficiency.

    Job descriptions are also a great human resources tool. When a position is being filled, the job description provides the candidate with an accurate reflection of the job. For legal purposes of interviewing, the job de­scription can be presented and the candidate asked, "Can you perform the duties listed for this position?" During training, the list of tasks in the job description can help guide the training protocol and process. It can then be used during future evaluation periods to hold employees accountable for performing the position they were hired to fill and provide backing if promotions are considered or if coaching, counseling, or disciplinary action is ever necessary.

    Last, but not least, it is likely that during this process, you can define your own position within your hospital. As a manager, you are not immune to exploring your own position and gaining insight into your own time management. It is easy to lose track of all the conversations held, meetings attended (both scheduled and impromptu), and "fires" doused that lead you to wonder where your day went! Be sure that your boss, perhaps the hospital administrator or practice owner, is kept informed on how you spend your day and provides feedback on your job description so that you know not only what you do, but that it's part of the position you fill!

    * * *

    Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, is the regular author of Management Matters. Katherine is the founder of the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association (www.vespa-home.org), which is dedicated to helping emergency and specialty practice managers and other veterinary professionals manage their clinics more effectively. 

    1. Heinke ML, McCarthy JB: The employment cycle, in Practice Made Perfect: A Guide to Veterinary Practice Management. Lakewood, CO, AAHA Press, 2001, pp 39-70.

    References »

    NEXT: On the Cover: "A Talk with Jodi Kristel, CVT, VTS (Dentistry)

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