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Writing effective job responsibilities / essential functions / competencies


Writing effective job responsibilities / essential functions / competencies

NOVEMBER 16, 2020

When writing job descriptions, one of the hardest sections to write is the Job Responsibilities/Essential Functions/Competencies section. The purpose of this section is to define the work that needs to be performed in the role and the things an employee in the job will be accountable for. It's also the information most vital to your other talent management processes since it defines the criteria that should be used for assessment and development.

This section often ends up being an exceedingly long and detailed list of tasks that is tough to maintain, but even tougher for an employee to remember and apply in their day-to-day work. Further, a lengthy task list is often not very usable when it comes time to create a job requisitions, evaluate an employee's performance, address development needs, define learning paths or compare jobs for classification/pay scale creation.

So how do you write effective job responsibilities that are useful and manageable, while still capturing all the important details? How do you ensure the employee clearly knows what is expected of them and what they are accountable for?

As Dr. Gordon Medlock, Sr. Talent Management Consultant with HRIZONS, explains, there are three general approaches to writing job responsibilities, essential functions or job specific competencies. They involve creating:

  • A detailed task list,
  • A list of job responsibilities and associated tasks, or
  • A list of job specific competencies.

Each approach has its own merits and limitations.


Job responsibilities are what an organization uses to define the work that needs to be performed in a role and the functions that an employee is accountable for. Job responsibilities also include the information most vital to your other talent management processes since it defines the criteria that should be used for employee assessment and development.


The detailed task list is perhaps the easiest approach, and the more traditional way of describing job responsibilities.

To create the task list for a job, you go through a typical day on the job and write down the tasks that are performed.

An effective task statement includes:

  • An active verb
  • A description of the task
  • The intended result or outcome

Here's an example of a task list for a medical assistant:

(Source: Job Descriptions & Talent Management: Building the Foundation for Organizational Success, Gordon Medlock, HRIZONS, Halogen 2011 User Conference)

  1. Assists with treatment ordered by physician as supervised by physician or registered nurse. Performs select clinical duties.
  2. Interviews patients, measures vital signs and records information on patients' charts. Prepares treatment rooms for examination of patients.
  3. Performs basic clerical duties including answering phones, maintaining records, and filing.
  4. Performs basic material management function to include ordering and stocking of supplies. Assists with maintaining a clean and orderly environment.
  5. Provides coverage for office administrative staff as needed, such as calling for lab results, logging in samples to medicine closet, checking for expired drugs, filing and answering phones.
  6. Schedules tests and procedures for physicians and obtains pre-certification/pre-authorization for these tests and procedures as required by insurance carrier.
  7. Works with the center staff to coordinate patient flow and to assure that operations are working smoothly. Pulls patient charts.
  8. When necessary, coordinates with Operating Room to assure that patient surgeries are correctly posted and all equipment for procedures are available.
  9. Calls pharmacies to refill prescriptions under the direction of a physician and obtains authorizations for prescriptions and prescription refills as required by insurance.
  10. Prepares patients charts prior to scheduled visits with the required forms and by gathering pertinent medical information from the electronic medical record and from outside medical offices and testing facilities. Prepares charts according to each physician's individual preference. Completes all necessary documentation including immunization records and logs.
  11. Performs lab procedures. Accurately completes and submits paperwork to appropriate lab based on managed care contracts.
  12. Receives and gives referrals to patients.
  13. Accurately and thoroughly enters scheduling data. Always documents no shows/ cancelations/add-ons. Enters all demographics properly and accurately. Completes insurance verification for all patients.

While this approach results in a fairly comprehensive list of tasks, the list is often too long and unwieldy to be used. And it doesn't assign or reflect any priority to the tasks. It's also hard to use this list in job requisitions, performance appraisal forms, or to determine appropriate learning and development activities.


This next approach typically identifies 3-7 job responsibilities or essential functions for each job.

As with the task list approach you:

  1. Go through a typical day on the job and write down the tasks that are performed.

And then you:

  1. Take the task list and group similar tasks into job responsibilities or essential functions. An essential function is a responsibility that is considered essential to performance of the job.
  2. For each job responsibility or essential function, write an accountability statement that supports your talent management processes.

Here's an example of an essential function for a director:

(Source: Job Descriptions & Talent Management: Building the Foundation for Organizational Success, Gordon Medlock, HRIZONS, Halogen 2011 User Conference)

Enterprise-wide HRIS strategy and planning

Lead short- and long-term enterprise wide strategy and planning efforts to define how the hospital will deploy additional HR applications (third-party systems and/or internal systems) while managing key stakeholder relationships with management sponsors, internal users, and external business partners.

Strong performance includes mastery of the following skills, tasks, and related behaviors:

  • Be the primary liaison with HR leadership for entity planning and implementation efforts. Coordinate on-going entity project training and testing needs.
  • Work collaboratively with key stakeholders to determine areas of optimization, deconstruct issues and develop solution approach.

While this approach results in a more manageable list, it doesn't easily map essential functions and tasks to competencies. It can also be hard to use this list in job requisitions, performance appraisal forms, or to determine appropriate learning and development activities.


This third approach invites you to reframe essential functions or job responsibilities as job-specific competencies. It's the method recommended by HR expert and consultant Dr. Gordon Medlock from HRIZONS.

Because it uses competences as its basis, this approach allows for the greatest integration with your other talent management programs. It avoids duplication of information between job responsibilities/essential functions and the competencies in your library. It also means the same set of competencies is being used for all assessments of performance.

With this approach, the competencies in your library need to include the results or outcomes that should be seen with demonstration of a competency, and describe proficiency on the job, not just an ability or capacity. With this additional detail though, competencies can be used more effectively to evaluate performance and determine learning/ development needs.

As part of the Job Responsibilities/Essential Functions/Competencies section, a job-specific competency statement includes:

  • Competency name
  • A summary description that includes:
  • The summary of tasks and/or behaviors the person will perform and is accountable for
  • The results or outcomes the person is accountable for
  • The internal and/or external customers the person is accountable to
  • A list of the specific, measurable tasks and/or behaviors that characterize successful performance

Every job should have 3-7 job-specific competencies that reflect the things they are accountable for.

Here are a few examples of job-specific competencies, used by Halogen Software customer St. Anthony's Medical Center (Source: Dynamic job descriptions that drive performance, Gordon Medlock, HRIZONS, Suzanne Beattie, Saint Anthony's Medical Center)

Clinical systems assessment

Completes an accurate assessment of all required physical systems without any patient complaints and ensuring quality patient safety and care.

  • Completes physical systems assessments of patients within thirty (30) minutes of patient admission, within 1 hour of coming on duty for shift, and at transfer or discharge from unit.
  • Completes assessment of all required systems, including neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, musculoskeletal, integumentary, incision/wound/dressing, psychosocial, and discomfort/pain.
  • Three or fewer incidents of non-compliance and no legitimate complaints with regard to chart reviews.
  • No incidents of non-compliance and no legitimate complaints for transfers or discharges from unit.
  • Documents shift assessment on the medical record within two (2) hours of coming on duty, performs reassessments and documents changes on the medical record according to guidelines.


Takes responsibility for own actions, including the impact of own decisions on patients and others. Takes appropriate action when anyone in the organization violates standards or regulations. Acts in a way that demonstrates deep personal integrity and serves as a positive example of why others should trust the organization. Views oneself as a reflection of the organization by following through on commitments and accepting ownership of any mistakes he or she might make.

Service standards

Alters behaviors based on feedback, when behaviors are perceived by others as offensive or embarrassing.

Adheres to all policies and procedures identified by St. Anthony's.

Treats others respectfully and actively listens when someone is speaking to them.

Greets others in elevators, hallways, etc., introducing self and purpose as the situation warrants - AIDET.

As you can see, these job-specific competencies could easily be used in a job requisition or on a performance appraisal form. You could also identify learning activities that would help develop these job-specific competencies.

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