Job Descriptions - the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Job descriptions are a fixture of working life. In theory they have many uses including workforce planning, recruitment, performance measurement and job evaluation. Unfortunately this theory rarely translates into actual practice. In my experience, job descriptions tend to spend the majority of their time gathering dust, with little bearing whatsoever on the day to day necessity of making a business successful.

One of the common practices I have observed is that job descriptions tend to be created for people. This might sound logical but I believe the reverse should be true. How often do you hear “we need to update your job description” as a response to changing tasks in an ever changing world? The exercise often becomes retrospective and the job description becomes a sort of memorandum to record what the individual has been or is doing. Surely all of this is the wrong way round and the question instead should be what work actually needs to be done in order to make the business successful? Only then should the skills and requirements to do the work be written down.
Earlier this year US tech company Zappos caught the media’s attention when they completely ditched job titles and flattened their organisational structure. They implemented an alternative to the hierarchy called the ‘holocracy’. One of the interesting features of the holocracy is the emphasis it places on job descriptions to help inform work activities. In the holocracy job descriptions are collaboratively formed by the team in order to get shared opinion. The interesting thing is people can be assigned more than one job description (which addresses the common problem of pigeon holing people). The role holder is then given authority to deliver the outcomes of his or her job description and I really like this bit – accountabilities and responsibilities are clear and properly delegated. Job Descriptions – or the work that needs to be completed is also regularly reviewed and updated to keep them relevant. Time consuming? Perhaps but then ask yourself how much time most companies waste on inefficiencies and duplication of effort.
Whilst the holocracy might not be suitable for all organisations, the lesson on job descriptions can be easily transferred. Keep them up to date and purposeful with work considerations as the priority. Whilst in some ways it might seem counter intuitive to make them about work (as opposed to the person) this can actually have an empowering impact on those doing the work, so long as accountabilities and responsibilities are properly delegated. The other lesson to take is the collaborative aspect – ask your team and colleagues to feed into creating job descriptions and do so with the company objectives in mind. Remember those doing the work will often have the best ideas about what the best ways are to complete the work.
As for those paper exercise job descriptions? I’d suggest you continue to let them gather dust!

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