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Why Job Descriptions Fail

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In one of those “Other duties as assigned” responsibilities at the bottom of my job description, I found myself heading up a program to build a course of instruction on job evaluation for plant engineers. My company, a large manufacturing corporation, used a modified point-factor system of job evaluation for manufacturing jobs that was not only complex in nature but sensitive because its adoption came about through a negotiated union buy-in. Having been brought to corporate HR staff in the compensation department from the ranks of those same engineers, I knew first hand that this was going to be a tough audience. Remembering my own cynicism toward the process, I decided that the best approach was to use more show-and-tell learning experiences than classroom lectures. Before breaking up into teams to visit the local plants to view the benchmark jobs, I conducted a quick drill as a refresher on how to give comp a good basic job description to evaluate against those benchmarked factors. I had to only go as far as my file cabinet to find absolutely horrible examples of job descriptions for a hands-on practical exercise. Hoping that they would see the humor in some of the ridiculous language used far exceeded my expectations. They not only worked to “fix” the bad job descriptions to make them actually say something meaningful, they roared with laughter and had fun in the process. Victory occurred on two battle fronts… the class participants and my boss who was also pleased.

Failure to understand the reason for a job description and why it is important is one of the reasons that job descriptions are poorly written. Ownership is key. If the process belongs to someone else and the value of making it work is not obvious, then there will be half-hearted descriptions that sound like gibberish and in some cases are just words to fill the page. Of course, mentioning that this is “one” reason implies that there are others. The biggest mistake is in assuming that a job description is a one-size-fits-all multipurpose document. The belief in “do it once and we are done” myth fails to really grasp that it means different things to different people. The purpose of a job description morphs through various forms during its life.

  1. For the hiring manager – The job description takes on the appearance of an outline of the essential competencies (skills, knowledge, abilities, personal characteristics, behaviors) for the position. In general terms, this is the beginning of the definition of the characteristics of an incumbent to do the work successfully. It is not an all inclusive list of specific tasks that may happen on the job and (in the U.S.) it is not a contract to work.
  2. For the job analyst – Most company compensation departments use the job description to determine the relative position of the job in a hierarchy of jobs. It is not a stand-alone analysis since the final evaluation is determined by many factors including other jobs. Based on the complexities of the competencies provided to them for this job compared to other positions determines the grade and salary range for the position.
  3. For the HR business partner – With an eye on career progression of incumbents in a position, HR must work as a mediator between internal elements to set expectations for the position. The job description is not a complete document for evaluating performance of an employee and other more detailed accomplishments must be added to the requirements for an individual employee to insure an accurate measurement.  
  4. For the recruiter – The general characteristics of a position determine the source of viable candidates, the criteria for screening applicants, and the interview evaluation process. The job description is not the same as a job posting. Without deviating from the scope of the description, an external facing document must be created to briefly relate the responsibilities and requirements of the job plus a description of the benefits and cultural advantages of joining the company.
  5. For the job candidate – This is usually the best look inside the company, its work and culture. It is not an absolute description of all possible work that may happen after hire. It should be a foundation for determining whether or not the individual skills and experience from previous work will be applicable, the level of work is meaningful and doable in context, and would be a stepping stone toward higher career objectives.
  6. For the employee – The job description provides a baseline for satisfactory performance. It is not a boundary for work to be accomplished. It is usually more generic than a performance planning document which will go into much more detail about objectives to be reached by application of relevant skills within the scope of the job.

The answer to the question “Why do job descriptions fail?” usually means that the questioner is seeing the wrong kind of “job description.” The common use of the term is at best a matter of perspective. Some of these defined perspectives are seemingly intuitive, but it is common even for HR professionals to misunderstand and misuse this concept in daily conversation. The biggest mistake that could be made is to take any one form out of context and use it incorrectly. When a job seeker mentions that company job descriptions suck, this probably is an opinion based on a wrong impression of the wrong external facing version of the ubiquitous job description.


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