Rethinking Job Descriptions

A Useful Tool Gone Bad?

There’s little doubt that some sort of job description is important. They help organizations articulate the purpose of a position and how the work is to be accomplished. They spell out the competencies, experience, and other requirements necessary to succeed, and give the person doing that job a sense of what they should be focusing on.

For some, a job description identifies the boundaries of a position. Individuals like to know what they should and should not do, and like to be able to say, “it’s not my job.” Employers, of course, have gotten around this boxing in by adding the ubiquitous phrase, “and other duties as assigned.”

Thinking Upside Down – Person First, Then Description

But what if employers flipped job descriptions on their heads? What if, instead of using these expedient documents to create an exhaustive list of tasks, duties and responsibilities, job descriptions became generalized documents that allow for interpretation based on individual strengths and organizational needs?

Human Resources professionals like to create standardized, documented procedures to reduce variability and mitigate risk. That way we can keep people accountable and easily address deviance from the norm through our structured disciplinary processes.

But this obsession with conformity and repeatability has a serious negative consequence: it squashes the creativity and resourcefulness of employees and fails to tap into their unique strengths and interests.

When we attempt to turn an individual into a walking embodiment of their job description, we lose the advantage of the whole person. The whole person may not be a perfect fit for the job description, but if we exchange rigidity with flexibility, the whole person will rise to the occasion and surpass any goals of a job description.

It’s a scary thing to let go of structure. We like to predict outcomes by identifying the right inputs. The good news is we don’t have to completely eliminate structure to create a culture where people are allowed to apply a greater percentage of their abilities, ideas, and strengths.

As our workplaces evolve and adapt to new realities, new understandings, new ways of getting things done, employers have to tap into the vast reserves of wisdom, innovation, and productivity that go to waste every day because we have limited people through our processes and practices.

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