The Long Overdue Obituary of the Job Description

Be the Lead Dog “We are delighted to record the long-overdue death of Mr. Job Description. Job Description, the product of the Scientific Management School (it seemed like a good idea at the time!) never delivered on his promise. He will be fondly remembered by those managers who simply accepted his presence in organizations without ever having critically evaluated his usefulness. R.I.P.”

They are in almost every organisation. Buried, archived, dusty, sometimes retrieved (when they can actually be found) to settle internal, relativity arguments. The ubiquitous job description. Here’s the rule: the length of a job description is in inverse relationship to the  productivity of the job holder! Conventional Human Resource philosophy argues that:

  • Job Descriptions are a necessary tool to help managers understand the ‘necessity’ for a particular job (i.e. they should be completed prior to hiring).
  • They provide ‘Role Clarity’ for individuals who are already employed.
  • They help companies to ‘scientifically measure internal relativities’ in setting pay scales/grades.
  • So, is all of the above true?

Providing ‘Role Clarity’ for individuals: The notion that Job Descriptions shine light into the darkness of role clarity is massively overstated. Individual employees usually refer to job descriptions when:

  • They disagree with the amount of ‘flexibility’ being asked by an employer.
  • They want to get their job ‘evaluated’ (translation: ‘trying to get a pay increase’).

Scientific’ measurement of internal relativities: The supposed science of Job Measurement and the role of job descriptions in this was heavily oversold. Arguably, the points measurement system (based on ‘job size’) may be the single best product ever conceived by management consultants – on the basis that the complexity and quasi-scientific jargon which attached to most proprietary systems become self-perpetuating. I’m sort-of jealous that I didn’t think of it myself;  it was a ‘gravy train’ for consultants for many years (as long as they had no problem doing boring, repetitive work).

Most intelligent managers/companies can construct a simple ‘ranking’ of jobs in about 60 minutes; while this is not ‘scientific’ it usually produces exactly the same outcome as ‘points measurement systems’ (albeit it is more difficult to communicate a perception of ‘fairness’ when a simple ranking method is employed and it doesn’t provide a data bank of evidence in relation to equal pay claims). Ultimately, the external market is the only scientific benchmark and this is the core point companies should stress.

Dinosaurs Are Dying: The criticism of job descriptions as they currently exist is as follows: They are primarily designed for a hierarchical structure and stable operating conditions. It follows that they promote a ‘static’ view of organisations which negates change and individual learning. In traditional pyramid organisations, Job Descriptions were designed to be relatively fixed structural elements. While they could be ‘changed’ (i.e. rewritten, agreed by consensus and re-evaluated) this procedure is time consuming and clumsy. Further, in many cases the pyramid notion of organisation has itself become dysfunctional.

Changing Shape of Organisations: Job Descriptions and the ‘measurement systems’ which accompany these are a dinosaur, based on an outmoded personnel administration concept. Increasingly organisations need to define a person’s responsibility in multiple terms (innovation, continuous improvement, personal growth, member of a multi-discipline team, developing subordinates etc.). A static system of ‘defining and measuring jobs’ is not simply irrelevant but actually counterproductive, absorbing productive time which could usefully be deployed fighting the competition.

Rapid Pace of Change: Any attempt to ‘measure’ the size of the job, as distinct from the person doing the job is the exact opposite of what is now needed in most commercial organisations. In an environment where change has become the 4th certainty (after death, taxes and water protests), jobs can no longer be viewed as static. Markets, products and technologies are changing with a rapidity that often outpaces the ability to match this. The unpredictabilities of today’s business conditions doesn’t stack up with the notion of ‘fixed roles’. Jobs keep changing over increasingly shorter periods of time. They key organisational requirement is role charity at a particular point in time and the managerial task is the creation of short-term certainty. 

So, what should you do…

Step One: Put all existing job descriptions in a large pile.

Step Two: Take your lawnmower petrol container and liberally sprinkle over the pile.

Step Three: Drop a lighted match onto this -restraining junior HR staff and Line Managers chained to ‘old thinking’ from removing lighted objects.

Step Four: Introduce the concept of Key Result Areas (outputs/achievements’ not inputs or activities). Let each employee develop their own ‘Key Result Areas’ by asking the following questions:

  • Why does my job exist? i.e. What do I uniquely do/achieve
  • What will I accomplish in the next 3 months?
  • How should my performance be measured?
  • What are the key steps to achieving these goals?

Step Five: Update about every 12 weeks as part of a living/vibrant performance management system.

Step Six: Sit back and watch your organisation come to a performance boil.

A death sentence on Job Descriptions is long overdue. You need to unshackle yourself from ideas and conventions which, while helpful in earlier times, have outlived their usefulness. In the Eskimo culture they say: ‘If you don’t have a lead dog, the scenery never changes.’ Become the lead dog in your organization. Start by ensuring all Job Descriptions have a decent burial.


 PS Lighter Moments

A mummy covered in chocolate and nuts has been discovered in Egypt. Archaeologists believe it may be Pharaoh Rocher.

Due to the current economic crisis, Greece is cancelling all production of humus and Taramasalata. Looks like it’s a double dip recession.

In the UK…a Reminder to those who stole Electrical Goods in the 2013 Riots…Your Three Year Manufacturer’s Warranty Runs Out Soon.

From the irrepressible Joe Bell: “Friend of mine was the manager in charge of the Dodgems and he was fired without warning or notice. Would he have a case for ‘Funfair Dismissal?” 

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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One Response to The Long Overdue Obituary of the Job Description

  1. laurencemcgivern says:

    Paul on the off chance that some of your eager readers decide to literally follow your instructions to the letter first thing tomorrow step one should include forming the pile of job descriptions outside of the building then setting fire to it.A good idea all the same. Hope all well with you and family

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