What Ever Happened to Job Descriptions?

by David Creelman | Posted | Performance Management

What Ever Happened to Job Descriptions?

Years ago, job descriptions were one of the most important tools in HR. You could even work as a job analyst doing little other than writing job descriptions. Job descriptions were the starting place for deciding what skills you needed to hire for, what training was appropriate, and, of course, they led to job evaluation and reward.

But writing job descriptions was tedious and they were always out-of-date. Long job descriptions gave way to short ones, and then, for a while they sunk out of sight. Yet, the need for understanding jobs has not disappeared. Where are job descriptions now?

Recent job description trends

I recently interviewed Ravin Jesuthasan, Global Practice Leader of Towers Watson's Talent Management Practice, about trends in job descriptions and he mentioned a few important developments.

One is that companies are more likely to buy generic job descriptions and tweak them, rather than having unique ones written from scratch. This is partly because it’s just not worth the effort to write unique job descriptions and partly because it’s easier today to get good generic descriptions than it was in the past.

Another trend is an increasing focus on building job families rather than describing individual jobs (a topic I touched on in an earlier blog). Job families do more than job descriptions. For example they help with career paths, and for many purposes looking at the job family is more enlightening than looking at a job in isolation.

Jesuthasan also says job evaluation (and hence job descriptions of some sort) is quite a hot topic with all the mergers, acquisitions and restructuring going on in recent years.

Of course, we aren’t returning to the days of long, tedious job descriptions. Once upon a time there was a sense that jobs were static and time was plentiful; so we went along writing job descriptions not questioning whether they were the best way to get to the results we needed.

In those days, you could say job descriptions were an end in themselves. Nowadays we still need some kind of description, but we want to get to the end result as quickly and economically as possible. A trainer or recruiter wanting to understand a job knows the job description is a starting point; but they also want to talk to the hiring manager to get a better understanding of the day to day role.

The importance of job descriptions in the workplace

What about the future? Well, jobs themselves seem to be less of an important building block than in years past. The organization is best understood as people (and these people may be full- and part-time employees or contractors) who are working on projects, not sitting in stable jobs.

That project work is set out by the performance management process, rather than a job design process. Whatever people management issue we are addressing, we can often better understand what is needed by thinking about the projects the person has to do, rather than thinking they are in some sort of unchanging job.

We still need to pay people, and so that means finding some way to assess the value and complexity of the work they do — which perhaps would be a good topic for a future article.

A drawback to job descriptions: The “not my job” excuse

A drawback to a classic rigid job description framework is that people may be looking for a document that they can use to say, “That’s not my job!”

Does that statement feel as archaic to you as it does to me? A strong job description and job analysis model will provide essential duties and responsibilities but will also reflect the true culture of an organization. If “growth” and a “get it done attitude” are the norm, it will be better reflected in all position descriptions.

When it comes to addressing statement like “that’s not my job,” yes, there does need to be a dialogue between the employee and manager on goals, targets and measures of outcomes. But notice it is a performance management dialogue, not a dialogue about a static piece of paper that represents some kind of contract between employee and company.

The job description should provide role clarity, not role rigidity.

Understanding work is a crucial HR competency, but few will regret it if this understanding shows up in forms other than a long job description.

Job Description Templates

Create consistent, concise and effective job descriptions with these best-practice job templates.


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Job Description Templates

Create consistent, concise and effective job descriptions with these best-practice job templates.


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