Job descriptions: dead or alive?

In Dubai this past week someone asked me what the value is in job descriptions (JDs).  (I was facilitating an org design programme, not taking a vacation).  They pointed out that a job description doesn’t indicate how a person does the job, or what he/she does once in the job.   I was on the edge of saying that they are of no value.  Which, like some others, I mostly believe.

For example, I enjoyed reading Leandro Herrero’s idea that ‘The job description is dead. It is replaced by a Lego box, no instructional manual and a map.’  In an earlier post he made the point that ‘The job description, and the label associated with it, are very often a mental prison.’

Chris Rodgers offers an escape from the JD mental prison by suggesting that instead of JDs we have Contribution Statements .  He tells us that:  ‘This sets out to answer the question: What specific contribution is the role intended to make which, if performed excellently, can make a significant difference to organizational performance and/or capability?’   It therefore begins by stating the role’s purpose – to make clear why it exists at all – and then sets out the performance aims for which the role-holder is accountable.

This focus on outputs (contribution and results) rather than inputs (resource usage and activities carried out) is an invitation to escape from the ‘activity trap’ of rigid job descriptions and procedural straight-jackets that too often limit performance – and ambition.

Another writer – agreeing that job descriptions are dead suggests that we begin by asking Why does this job exist? And then via discussion uncover ‘the three to five key accountabilities about how this job should be done’.

A further writer believes that ‘using impact descriptions versus job descriptions makes a significant positive difference.  Impact descriptions help both your team and your candidates to understand that every role exists to impact the organization in some specific way. Our roles make a difference, move the needle, and change the game.’

There are several others in these veins – Google ‘is the job description dead’ for more.  And, of course, I thought they were right.

But then I wondered:

a) how far my response was culturally conditioned.  How do other cultures respond to job descriptions?

b) As I enjoy  Herrero’s posts, and others, slating JDs am I succumbing to the psychological trait of confirmation bias. (See also here).  Preferring to read others confirming what I believe.

Maybe.  To test this, I took another tack and googled ‘Are job descriptions alive?’  Google’s algorithms instantly gave me links to jobs at Alive, a non-profit aimed at ‘lighting up later life’.  It looks like a great organization it points out that ‘There are now over 400,000 older people living in residential care in the UK. Alive is the UK’s leading charity enriching the lives of older people in care and training their carers.’

I instantly got worried, thinking that Google knows more about me than I imagined – I’ll have to protect my data better.  (My mother is 101, in residential care).

On a temporary diversion from job descriptions I looked at the blog on session replay scripts, published by Freedom to Tinker.  I am right to be worried.  Their researchers say, ‘You may know that most websites have third-party analytics scripts that record which pages you visit and the searches you make.  But lately, more and more sites use “session replay” scripts. These scripts record your keystrokes, mouse movements, and scrolling behavior, along with the entire contents of the pages you visit, and send them to third-party servers.’

Back to job descriptions.  UK employers aren’t legally obliged to create a job description for a role.  I don’t know if there is a legal obligation in other countries?   Whether they are of value or not , in the main, I found that HR sites are in favour of producing job descriptions and give advice on how to write one.  The UK’s CIPD, for example, quotes research that finds that ‘Poorly defined job descriptions drive staff turnover’.

The US HR body SHRM is firm ‘A job description is a useful, plain-language tool that describes the tasks, duties, functions and responsibilities of a position. It outlines the details of who performs a specific type of work, how that work is to be completed, and the frequency and the purpose of the work as it relates to the organization’s mission and goals.’

But organizations in favour of job descriptions also point to the requirement to keep them current, and offer advice on how to update them.  See for example, How To Revive And Renew Your Job Descriptions  and ‘At year’s end, don’t forget to update your job descriptions’

So maybe I am biased, and job descriptions are sensible and suitable.  However, I’m still not convinced of their  value to individuals, although I can see they may have organizational value.  And, even on this count, they have pros and cons as Susan Heathfield’s blog suggests in 5 Positives and 5 Negatives about Job Descriptions.

What’s your view of job descriptions? Let me know.

Image: Science job descriptions

5 thoughts on “Job descriptions: dead or alive?”

  1. Thank you very much Dr. Naomi for your sharing valuable insight, it is much appreciated for considering this as one of the key discussion points.
    I was the one who raised this question ‘How to get rid of job description’ in last session held at Dubai Marina (2017 Dec 6 and 7). The session was quite interesting and helped us to think differently. If so what could be alternative solution?
    We are also thinking of get rid of job evaluation process in our organization.
    Please do share your views and insights and keep in touch

    Anas Abdul Rashed
    Etisalat-UAE

  2. Hi! I have been thinking a lot about this article and propose to write Job descriptions in my company in a different way, using the Contribution Statement Concept. However, in the middle, I started asking my self if job descriptions should be a motivational tool or just complying with certain structure, order and boundaries, also with audits. Then I thought what should a Contribution Statement as a job description look like? is it valid for all types of jobs? Opinions?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Have you thought of stating the outcome measures of the role you have, and then asking applicants to state what they can contribute to delivering the outcomes. You write the outcomes desired in a role (see a useful discussion of output v outcome http://measurementresourcesco.com/2014/02/02/outputs-vs-outcomes-matters/ ) and give the applicant some headings e.g. experience, skills, knowledge. The applicant fills in what he/she can contribute under each of those headings.

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