Matters Column

Are job descriptions still valuable to organizations?

August 31, 2018
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We often write about how human resources has changed over the years. Not a surprise. Organizations evolve to meet the needs of the clients they serve and the people who bring the products and services to them change, as well. The trends are always on the move as technology, regulations, social interests and norms have an impact on our cultures.

The mix of people in the labor market is evolving at an ever-faster rate, as immigrants, millennials and LGBT people take positions in places where they have not worked before. Human resources, of course, is charged with helping the organizations be prepared to put practices in place that facilitate the effectiveness of the new employees, while still keeping the “other” workers supporting organizational goals and objectives.

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of new programs like ramped-up orientation or onboarding programs, more focus on employee involvement and using directed communication methodologies. Some organizations react to specific situations with high-profile education programs, like the recent effort by Starbucks to address a racial incident involving potential customers.

And don’t forget all the high visibility on sexual harassment and hostile work environment — clearly a lot of fires to tamp down while still trying to handle the basic matters of attracting, retaining and motivating all employees. Add to this mix, working in a labor market where the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent or less.

What can be done?

A lot of the underlying issue in all of these situations is treating people fairly. That, of course, means that everyone is handled with consistency, and application of the rules and policies don’t change regardless of who is under consideration. People do recognize there are differences based on position and associated authority and impact. It also means that people can rely on being treated appropriately based on job responsibilities and performance. However, what is appropriate may be more easily said than established for all to accept.

The first step is to focus on the job. What is it all about? Making sure we know what the organization requires to meet its objectives helps us lay the foundation for addressing a lot of the other matters that surface or create headlines that distract us from why we have created the structure to achieve our mission.

The jobs often start out very basic and change as different responsibilities or skills are required to accomplish the necessary work. At the early stages of an organization, just the use of a title conveys responsibility and authority. At some point, the clarity gets vaguer and it is necessary to give more specifics on what is to be done by the person. It may also be supplemented with more information such as how and by when.

At some point, these additions need to be written so as to keep things straight in everyone’s mind and help assure that people aren’t running into conflict or that some activities don’t fall through the cracks. It would be nice if you could say when you have five jobs, now you need job descriptions. Unfortunately, it varies a lot by situation.

The opportunities to utilize the information in a job description are surprisingly broad. But, first and foremost is getting all the interested parties agreeing to and understanding the job content. That content is the key points for which the person assigned to that job will be held accountable. Once this has been accomplished, other issues come along, such as what education, skills and experience are required to do this job effectively? This is closely followed by what should this job pay?

At this point, we are back to the issues of appropriate and fair. If we can get these two aspects handled well, and we follow up with doing it the same for all the people placed in the position, we should get around most of the issues related to some groups being treated better than others.

However, to do this well, we can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. We should be looking at the jobs around the position in question above, below and similar. This raises the question of how do we know who is similar, above or below? It will require more job descriptions, but with all of them utilizing a similar writing pattern that can provide information that can be easily assimilated and judged on the basis of what will have the greatest impact on the organization. Gathering this information can be done in a variety of ways, including management drafts, employee statements, questionnaires or a combination. Then there needs to be an application of some methodology (simple ranking to point-factor analysis) to establish a hierarchy.

Other applications

Having collected information on multiple jobs, we are now in a position to address the issues of appropriateness and fairness but only on an internal equity basis. However, a comprehensive job description has an added value. It allows the organization to use this information to compare to what similar positions in other organizations are paid to help achieve external equity.

The comprehensive job description has even more uses in day-to-day operations. Capturing the number of positions and associated pay and benefits allows for detailed budget management. It becomes a very important tool in strategic planning, succession planning and organization development, as well as critical training and employee development.

Closely associated with these practices is the matter of performance management and pay adjustments. Knowing what is required and having it documented avoids all sorts of management issues such as discrimination and discipline practices, which can frequently lead to lawsuits and penalties when the basis for action are subjective because there is no written documentation.

Job description management

It should also be noted that just because there is a job description, the practices associated with its use requires a modest amount of maintenance to keep things in sync. This involves some basic practices, starting with making sure the title of the job is the one that is used throughout all employee records. Do not fall into the trap that there is more cohesiveness when titles are not made a big deal. What happens is that people make up a title that can often be misleading, especially when people on the outside want to understand authority and scope of activities. Getting such a situation under control once the genie is out of the bottle is a real mess.

Secondly, make sure the document is dated with official approval of job content. Not everyone should be able to create an official job description.

Thirdly, associated with the implementation of the document, there should be a routine to review for change. One very effective process is to have the employee review the latest version before the formal performance review. That is a way to have an open discussion between the employee and the supervisor about what has actually been the assignment in the prior review period. If there are differences of understanding, they can be ironed out before the discussion of performance rating or pay adjustment. This also captures how the business is evolving and proper adjustments are applied.

Are job descriptions still of value?

Yes, there has been a lot of change in HR practices, but when you examine all the areas where these basic documents can come into play and most importantly facilitate a positive outcome, there is no question they have value. It is a critical building block to good employee and business management.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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