Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The death knell of the traditional job description is coming ...

I hear a death knell in the distance, it isn’t fully audible but I know it is coming nonetheless. The traditional job description is gasping its last imperfect breaths, slipping down into obscurity with “ineffective” stamped clearly on the headstone ... well, in my mind anyway!

I have always hated job descriptions. This is perhaps partly because I had to re-write each and every one multiple times at a previous job. Having said that the fact that we actually dug them out of the filing cabinet was a miracle in itself.

How many times have you changed roles or been somewhere for a while and realised that you either don’t have a job description or it doesn’t even remotely resemble what you do?

I can’t remember a time when the daily tasks of my role have fitted the description I was given when applying for a job ... and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I am convinced that it is often the things that you do in work that aren’t listed out on a piece of paper that are the most interesting, engaging and enthralling. But that isn’t the issue.

The problem with job descriptions is that they set a rigid list of tasks for something that is undoubtedly going to be fluid. Jobs are multi-dimensional and setting someone in a box either leads to your brightest and most talented employees becoming bored and deserting you or it leads to the job description becoming obsolete and meaningless.

Job descriptions tend to be written with potential applicants in mind. The classic look of horror on an HR personnel’s face when they realise that they are due to advertise a new job opening but the job description is out of date or non-existent. No matter how urgent the job search, nothing will move forward until the job description has been produced and signed off (probably by someone important)!

Writing with a job applicant in mind leads to pages and pages of gumpf that is meant to make the job appear more attractive by including absolutely every task someone might possibly do in a role ... obviously aiming to cast the nets wide in the hope of a good catch rather than being more targeted.

One of my job descriptions, as I came to find after I had started the job, had actually listed the tasks and skills that you would need if you were going to work in every position in the department. I almost didn’t apply because I was nervous that I didn’t have enough experience to work in the role effectively. As it was I was absolutely fine but I ended up doing a number of things that weren’t even on the list anyway (and not doing many of the tasks that were!) ... but it just goes to show that job descriptions can often become deterrents to potential new blood.

OK, so job descriptions are outdated and inflexible. Let’s get rid of them! Ah, but there appears to be a few issues with casting them out forever:
  •           How would we let potential applicants know what a role entails?
  •           Where would we anchor performance metrics to?
  •           How would we iron out the uncertainty of who does what?

These are but a few of the issues with cutting off the age old job description forever. So perhaps rather than axing it all together we need to think of ways that we can be more flexible and move the dusty and rusting job description forward with the times. Making changes to job descriptions always throws up questions around compliance with employment law but in my mind out of date or obsolete descriptions do the same thing so we shouldn’t hold back!

I have listed below a few potential changes that have sprung to mind but I definitely want to re-visit this topic later on down the line (after hearing your ideas too!).
  • Have a core description for a role but leave room for specialisms, specific and developmental projects – everyone will be doing something slightly different
  • Rather than talking about tasks, talk about skill sets – this way the job description will be more adaptable and won’t scare off potential employees
  • Tie performance management expectations with the job description but make sure it is up-to-date and current
  • Don’t just rely on HR to do it all – take ownership, after all it is you that knows what the job entails
  • Don’t be afraid to make changes!

The reality is that organisations need to be flexible and have room to manoeuvre. This is going to be virtually impossible if jobs are inadaptable. If they are flexible and easy to change to suit business needs you are one step in the right direction but this doesn’t mean that companies can sit back whilst job descriptions languish or remain stretches away from the reality. Keeping job descriptions fresh and alive is not just a role for our HR departments but the responsibility of the organisation AND its employees. We must find a way of being more flexible and adaptable whilst having a clear idea of our responsibilities and how, as an employee, we will be measured.

To me, the traditional job description is defunct. I know that something more flexible and interactive is needed but I am not 100% sure what that is yet – what do you think?


  1. My job description changes every month as my boss tries to make sure my objectives match what I'm working on! In fact, I have never used it to set out my priorities and responsibilities.

    I think to a certain degree job descriptions are important, especially for management and planning. For any sort of strategy to be effective you need to have a clear idea of what function you want someone to fill. And to make management possible, you want to set some expectations of your staff.

    However, you're right to point out that staff need a certain amount of autonomy, especially in jobs that require lateral thinking and creativity. And, as you say, trying to list every possible function an employee might be expected to do is counter-productive.

    Does the 'traditional' job description need to change, though? First of all, I'd argue that the job descriptions we see today aren't traditional at all. They have a habit of 'sexing-up' the job but don't clearly define a role. They need a bit more honesty and a bit less managementspeak. They should lay out what is expected but also invite the candidate or job holder to define a portion of it as well.

    As for skill sets? I'm not sure. Some posts will obviously need specific abilities but these should be self-explanatory.

    However, managers also require something from us. We need to recognise our specific skills and competencies and understand how well they match a job. If we're really going to hate a mandrolic, repetitive job, we shouldn't apply for one. If we're not comfortable taking the initiative, or taking orders, we either need to change our attitude or do a job that doesn't include much of this. Furthermore, we're more successful if we match a job and its responsibilities to our strengths.

    But we can only identify the right type of job if the descriptions are clear and honest themselves.

    1. Thanks for your comment, it is really refreshing to hear that your job description morphs with your work. Out of interest are you the only person within your job role or are there multiple people with the same title? I only ask because I wonder whether employers would find issues within Employment Law if they appeared to be placing varying expectations on their staff despite the same "job role".

      I 100% agree with your comment that we should drop management speak and "sexing-up" of job descriptions and try to layout clear expectations whilst leaving room for the employee to define aspects of the role. This is a basic need to establish for people to feel a sense of direction.

      I can't claim to have seen job descriptions from times gone by but I would perhaps wager that they have not changed that much. Perhaps some companies have become more willing to "push the boundaries" but the static description of someone's duties with slight "embellishments" to make the job more appealing has probably remained the same.

      For me the real necessities are honesty, as you very rightly mention, and also ownership. Job descriptions shouldn't just be the remit of HR or a Line Manager.

    2. There are good points to having a job description that morphs in line with your work, but there are also downsides. Sure enough, if your responsibilities are definitely changing, this needs to be the case; however, if the description is constantly changing to capture the work you're doing, then this could indiciate that management haven't fully grasped what they want your role to be. If this is the case, there's a risk that an employee doesn't have a clearly defined set of responsibilities and priorities, and without these it can be very had to create a business plan.

      There are several people within the business who have the same role as me, but each is embedded in a different team. As each team has its own unique set of priorities and responsibilities, it only seems right that job descriptions reflect that fact. Furthermore, the job descriptions also reflect that each person has their own set of interests and skills, so the role can also be shaped to capture and capitalise on these, provided they benefit the business. Expectations may vary but at least the job profiles are flexible and can be changed depending on workload and what is manageable. The danger with this approach, though, is that if someone is given too much free reign, leading to increased job satisfaction, how do you pull them back when business requirements need them to focus more on their core work?

    3. Some great points raised. It really has to be about getting the right balance and ensuring that whilst there is clear direction there is also room for development and flexibility.

      I think that if a business has a clear vision that translates throughout the business and there are defined boundaries, there isn't any issue with giving employees free reign within these. Providing autonomy for employees helps with business innovation and offers an environment that allows employees to engage with their work and the company.


  2. Hi Jenny,

    When I'm coaching business owners / directors on this topic there are two main ideas that I've found are easily accepted before recruitment is commenced, and effective for management once the applicant is engaged...

    Firstly, decide on the outcomes you want achieved by the role short and longer term, and define these in terms of areas of responsibility, rather than task lists.

    Second, when engaging the applicant, explain the role will be varied and will develop over time to suit business needs as well as personal potential... I'm not recruiting your skillset and attitude for today only, but for your potential ability going forward. After all, we want motivated and 'growing' team members with a development mindset, and not someone who will have the same value in 10 years as they represent today. Supporting this idea with a strong personnel development process (1:2:1s, appraisals, training and more) is important too.

    Hope these thoughts are interesting to you, and hope you are doing well.

    FYI, starting my course in Oct / Nov...


    Tim Rylatt

    1. Certainly interesting Tim. Everything that you say is common sense and is definitely all about getting the right balance for the employer and job holder - if only it was that simple to get everyone doing it this way though!!

      Good luck with the beginning of your course! I actually started in June so my first essay draft is due in the next couple of weeks and the second one is due shortly after that (eek!).