Why Job Descriptions Are A Dying Art

Feb 19, 2016 1 Min Read


A client called and said, “Karin, I’m going to send you the job description for the new role we designed, but ignore all the HR mumbo jumbo. Just concentrate on the competencies and see if they seem right to you based on the strategy we’ve been working on.”

Game on. We were going to have the conversation that was most worth having: How do we find the right person with the aptitude for this vital job?

The 25% this, 37% that of traditional job descriptions was a crap shoot at best. We needed a thinker who would work with us to be as creative as possible and build this role into more than we ever imagined.

Planning out roles and functions are vital. Pricing jobs for fair market value makes sense.

But, when job descriptions serve to confine, or when “swim lanes” become too narrow, you’re headed into dangerous waters.

Confined to job descriptions

I remembered the time the union in the United States fought so hard to prevent “service reps” from doing higher paid “customer rep” work, and kept a careful watch, telling both groups to be careful not to do too much outside their “role”.

Once the lawyers got involved, the higher job was eliminated, the career path disappeared, and really great people were disappointed and stopped trying.

I was devastated to see good people with hopes of moving up crushed by the instruction to do less, because some artificial boundaries said that would help.

It didn’t, it never does

It’s not just in union jobs. Recently, I failed to convince one of my Master of Business Administration (MBA) students in the power of thinking beyond her current low-level job description.

She sings opera on the side and was asked if she would like to sing at her company gala (with external players). She said only if she were paid for the gig, since this is “not in her job description.”

She had a big opportunity to get noticed and to differentiate herself, but she didn’t sing due to a matter of principle.

As a musician myself, I get it at some level. But, I’ll also never forget the time when we were in the middle of a touching measure of a huge rehearsal and the conductor put down the baton between beats, because it was time for a union break*.

Most examples are not this dramatic, and often not articulated. But in almost every company I work in, I see signs of the “it’s not my job” virus gaining momentum, and the “A Players” are shooting themselves in the foot while the mediocre get by just fine.

Why job descriptions are old school

I can’t claim to fully understand every circumstance, and I know there are grave situations where good people are being exploited. I’m not talking about that.

What I do know is the hundreds, at this point, likely thousands of people I’ve met over the years in reasonable-paying jobs, whose fear of working outside their job description absolutely damaged their careers and sabotaged their long-term earnings.

And it’s even more critical now.

We’re in a knowledge and technology economy where even lower-level jobs change faster than human resources (HR) can keep up.

Your job description is the skeleton—the unimaginative view of minimal requirements. Many will stop there and stay put. And that’s a tragedy.

The game changers will understand this limited view, and know that the real work is to think past the basics and add value that changes the game.

In most cases, the money will follow. If not, know there are plenty of companies hungry to hire people willing to change the game.

The call to HR

Of course you need job descriptions. It’s just time to get more creative. Imagine the possibilities if every job description had the 75% skeleton as it exists today, and then 25% encouraging innovation and additional contribution?

• Continuously seeks new ways to enhance the customer experience and shares them with peers.

• Collaborates across departments for innovative solutions to improve quality and reduce costs.

• Builds a deep bench of talent through recruiting, mentoring and organic employee development.

Parting thoughts

The old Field of Dreams idea of “build it and they will come” sometimes fail as a short-term solution. But I’ve never seen a genuine effort of a competent person giving a little more than expected over time fail.
Let’s talk about this important issue.

Your turn. What’s riskier? Holding back and doing what you’re paid to do, or giving too much and risking being taken advantage of?

*A union break refers to an agreement made between the employer and employees (who are part of a union) about the duration and frequency of a break or rest period between working hours.

Karin Hurt is a keynote speaker, leadership consultant, and MBA professor. She has decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR which she uses to help clients achieve a turnaround through deeper engagement. She knows the stillness of a yogi, the reflection of a marathoner, and the joy of being a mom raising emerging leaders. To engage with Karin, email us at editor@leaderonomics.com. For more HR Talk articles, click here

Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com.

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Prethiba is passionate about impacting people through the written word. She believes that our lives are solely written by us, and thus the power to change for the better lies with us.

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