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Job Description Prison

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 by Slaughter Development

Local HR firm C&S Consulting recently published a blog post about job descriptions. Unfortunately, these documents tend to cause problems rather than establish useful parameters for work.

The piece begins with a straightforward argument:

You may not think that job descriptions are important but as a manager or business owner you want people to know what your role in your company is. It is the same with your employees. The more descriptive you are with what your employees’ titles are the more you will get out of their performances.

If only this were true! If employee performance were tied to job descriptions, managers could simply write “will close $100M in sales every day” and retire immediately.

Obviously, the author does not mean that a worker will conduct any defined task, but rather that the level of detail in a job description will predict the level of employee output. There is some logic in this claim—if you want an employee to return customer phone calls within an hour, you must tell them to do so. However, that’s not a description of a job, it’s a description of an expectation.

The choice of words might sound like mere semantics, but giving an employee a written job description places them in a sort of career prison. Such a document is separate from the human employee and is created without any analysis of the employee’s unique strengths, talents and weaknesses. The next person to fill the job will get the same job description, and will live inside the same carefully defined box.

Instead of a job description, organizations should focus on the individual stakeholder and their personal ability to contribute. Consider this comparison:

Job Description: Account Manager
XYZ Services Corp.

- Respond to client issues within 1 business day
- Treat clients with courtesy & professionalism
- Support sales team with RFP review process
- Maintain billable hours spreadsheet daily
- Coordinate monthly client seminars
- Maintain office vacation calendar
- Attend two networking events each month
- Assist with annual charity fundraiser
- Other duties as assigned

Salary: $14.00/hour

Sally Smith’s Career Plan
XYZ Services Corp.

Current Title: Account Manager

- Excellent customer service skills
- Strong product knowledge
- Good written and verbal communication

Current Focus:
- Enhance overall attention to detail
- Demonstrate increased autonomy

Organizational Obligations: office vacation calendar, daily billable hours spreadsheet, 10% availability for miscellaneous tasks


The job description on the left is generic and almost painful. It is a list of requirements spelled out in excruciating detail. One can easily imagine a supervisor using this document to defend a poor performance review or low compensation. A job description tells what has to be done, but says nothing about who is going to do it.

By presenting a career plan, the employee is freed from “job description prison.” Notice how the name of the person—not the name of the role—is most prominent. Although a job title is mentioned, it’s referenced as the current title, reminding the employee that they can change and grow in the organization. Instead of listing duties, the career plan outlines employee strengths. Each is listed with a qualifier, so the individual knows where they excel and where they can improve. Areas of current focus are also identified. This document is mostly focused on the person doing the work, not the job.

Finally, the career plan does include some “organizational obligations” as a footnote. These are important, but they do not constitute the real value of Ms. Sally Smith. She’s a great employee because of her strengths, not because she updates her daily billing reports flawlessly. Even the dreaded “other duties as assigned” is characterized with a helpful limiter. Sally knows that she should never expect to allocate more than 1/10 of her time to work outside her main career path.

Despite these concerns, C&S Consulting does offer one sound piece of advice in the blog post:

Giving responsibilities unique to a position will make the employee feel important…

While this is true, empowering stakeholders with responsibility and authority will do more than help people feel important. Giving people control over their own work actually makes them important. It demonstrates they were not hired to complete the items listed in a job description but instead due to their innovation, creativity and ability to forge relationships. It shows the organization values not just the work that gets done, but the people who do the work.

❖ ❖ ❖

Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

Helping You Write Your Résumé - As your manager, my most important, long-term project is you. In fact, my job is to help you write your résumé.
Read on »
Other Duties as Assigned - Often, an idle comment made by an employee speaks volumes about their work environment. Consider a message sent via the social networking site Twitter.
Read on »
Ladd on Gladwell - Local Indianapolis blogger Parke Ladd recently cited popular author Malcolm Gladwell. Their joint insights on work are right on target. Read on »
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One Response to “Job Description Prison”

  1. Mike Says:

    One of the biggest problems is the use of job descriptions as the basis of a job posting. Jjob descriptions should be internal documents. Nothing more. Descriptions need to be rewritten to appeal to the job seeker. I mean how many people are going to be excited about a job that lists two dozen responsibilities??

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