By John C. Kelly

When the Lighthouse Board was formed in 1852, it did three things that dramatically improved the performance of lighthouses. First, the board issued detailed instructions to all lighthouse keepers on what was expected of them in their jobs. Second, they began retrofitting all light houses with Fresnel lenses, which had already been in use in Europe since 1822. Third, they began constructing screwpile lighthouses, like the one at Thomas Point. It is the first action, issuing job descriptions, that is the focus of this article, as it applicable to most small businesses.

An example of the job descriptions prepared by the Lighthouse Board is on display at the Hooper Strait Lighthouse at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. It specifies the following list of “keeper” duties:


Standing watch attending to light and fog bell




Handling boats


Maintenance: scrubbing, cleaning, polishing brass, filling lamps


Visiting minor lights nearby


Record keeping, picking up mail and supplies

I particularly like the use of percentages as a way of expressing the amount of time and the relative importance of various tasks. Who would have guessed that 25% of keeper’s job was painting? Of course, with a little thought, it is obvious that a wood structure, exposed to wind and sea, would need continual maintenance.

Job descriptions are one of the best ways that a small business owner can increase the success and performance of his or her new job hires. Job descriptions are the first step in setting clear expectations, and clear expectations are essential to both job performance and job satisfaction. Small business owners too often view job descriptions as bureaucratic and only appropriate for large companies. Don’t fall into this trap, or should I say, don’t use this excuse. Written job descriptions force you to clarify your expectations. They provide a basis for discussion between you and your employees about what is expected of them. They are invaluable when it comes time to evaluate performance. How can you evaluate job performance if your expectations are not clearly defined? Research shows that employees express greater dissatisfaction with unclear expectations than they do with low pay.

A major side benefit of job descriptions is the improvement they make in hiring decisions. A detailed written job description clarifies the skills that are needed to successfully perform a job. They also help the prospective employee understand what will be expected of him or her once they are hired. And, they focus the job interview in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

All small business owners would do well to follow the example of the Lighthouse Board by writing detailed job descriptions. It is a proven method to improve both job performance and job satisfaction.

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Even Lighthouse Keepers Had Job Descriptions