Are Your Job Descriptions Strategic, or Just Ineffective Lists?


This article is a continuation of Here's Why Writing Job Descriptions is a Waste of Time.

Even though I’ve written hundreds, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy writing job descriptions. But unfortunately, just eliminating them altogether isn’t the answer. Companies need to look at the process used to create the job description, what other documents are required, and then design a solution that aligns with the organizational culture and structure.

Let’s first look at the process. Typically job descriptions are created for new positions and revised to backfill a job. HR may partner with the hiring manager to list the daily and/or routine duties using a template that is possibly several years old. Some edits are made to the experience requirements and “other duties as assigned” will pretty much cover anything that may be missed. The result is often a vague and ineffective document used for recruiting, compensation, title, organizational structure, employee performance and compliance. That seems to be a big disconnect, doesn’t it?

Usually, a job ad and eventually a template for employee goals are also completed. Legal departments may advise Job Descriptions as separate documents. What’s the difference? The job ad is often a shorter version of the job description (not that it should be, but that is another article!). The employee goals can vary by company (many do not have goals), but they typically include objectives to achieve above and beyond the normal expectations. While these may all be used for legal documentation, none are official legal documents.

This seems like a lot of administration to accomplish pretty much the same result! However, for an organization to function efficiently, employees need role clarity. They need to understand opportunities for further advancement. Job descriptions used to do this effectively. But now due to technology and many other changes in the business climate, a static document cannot accurately reflect the current situation.

The last several decades have been called the age of the Knowledge Worker, one who deals with information. Author Jacob Morgan describes the evolution to Learning Workers. To summarize, knowledge is now everywhere. Where one might have had to acquire specific information directly from an expert as an apprentice, intern, manager, mentor, etc., now everything is not only accessible via the internet, but is also right at people’s fingertips on a smartphone. Learning workers are skilled at how to learn what they need (including new technologies), discerning information and adapting to changes as jobs quickly become irrelevant and new ones emerge.

A Learning Worker might be designing a marketing campaign for a few months and then leading a technology implementation. Daily duties may not stay the same for more than a few months. On one project they may be a lead, and another an individual contributor. The reporting relationship may vary with every assignment. The new technology they just mastered will be out of date quickly, so they study the latest one. Years of experience and specific skills may not apply as flexibility, curiosity and innovation don’t require either!

Now we get to the exciting part. This is a huge opportunity for human resources to lead human capital transformation. While they actually take more time and strategic thinking, there are other solutions depending on the actual role. One possibility is a living document capturing the essence of the job description, ad, and goals. It would align the company’s purpose with the job, define what needs to be accomplished, document results, and outline future possibilities for stretch, learning and advancement based on talents. With jobs becoming more project-based, this could also look more like a Statement of Work where both the company and employee agree to the scope of the work and metrics to be achieved.

Both allow a learning culture, set expectations, contain enough flexibility for roles to adapt to changing company needs and correlate compensation to success and value added. This is a mind shift that requires strategically thinking about the organization as a whole, not just one job. HR, legal and the business must be in agreement that this matches the company culture as they will be the ones who will lead the company through the transition.

HR can play a critical role, but they will need to gather information differently and have a much deeper understanding of the business. They will need to be investigative journalists to get down to the bottom of what people really do; to identify talent, and ultimately to design an organization to achieve the company goals.

Knowledge, once a commodity, is now accessible to almost anyone at anytime. Desired skills change with technology and new requirements. Experience doesn’t ensure one can be successful. This new world moves so quickly that doing what we’ve always done without constantly seeking knowledge can make an employee, or even a company, irrelevant.

cquisition Partner at Kids II, but any opinions expressed are her own. Nothing in her articles constitutes legal advice.

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