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When's the Last Time You Revisited Your Job Descriptions?

January 05, 2021 Employee Experience
China Martens
By China Louise Martens

Too often job descriptions are lists of requirements cobbled together in haste, rarely refreshed and used once or twice during recruitment or onboarding. Yet a well-crafted, accurate and up-to-date job description can benefit your organization at every stage of the employee lifecycle.

"Job descriptions are the foundation of most organizations," said Dorothy Dalton, talent management strategist and CEO of 3Plus International. "When correctly created, a good job description provides a solid base for organizational structure and workflow processes, workforce and succession planning, job benchmarking plus salary and grade levels."

A job description should provide an employee with a clear understanding of the responsibilities of their assigned role, including how to complete all required tasks, and how their position relates and contributes to your organization’s overall goals. Down the line, these same job descriptions can aid in employee performance reviews, career and skill development, and recruitment drives. Employees can compare different job descriptions to learn what skills and experience they need to gain to be a good fit for another role within your organization.

"Job descriptions should be written using complete and well-researched information, and then carefully maintained," said Chris Knize, vice president, product management at "Creating descriptions in a random, hurried and inconsistent fashion, and failing to maintain them with periodic updates, does not result in a useful tool."

Clarify the Purpose, Then Examine the Process

How a job description is created and the frequency at which it is updated can make or break the value the tool provides. “Job descriptions are also questionable in purpose,” said Brent Colescott, senior director, global business strategy and transformation at SumTotal Systems. “When was the last time you reviewed your job description after being hired? Does it look anything like what you are doing today?”

Colescott notes that job descriptions are often initiated at the departmental level, closest to the work, once there’s a realization of a need for the role and the necessary budget is available. “One issue that can occur is going too granular with the job description,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s tailored to a candidate; other times, it’s just too specific without accommodating for a candidate’s ability to grow within a role.”

Larger organizations may also suffer from overly bureaucratic and slow-moving processes to approve job descriptions. However, input from senior executives outside of HR, talent and compensation may help ensure there’s no overlap or redundancy of positions across an organization, Colescott said.

Creating a standard framework for job descriptions can help drive a consistent approach across an organization and result in a document that’s both easy to understand and to maintain.

“Without that architecture in place, it is difficult to accurately define the role, collaborate with others and secure informed stakeholder approvals,” Knize said. “Things fall apart pretty quickly, with valuable hours wasted for all those involved, including the hiring manager, HR department, and job candidates.”

Related Article: Beyond the Zoom Wave: How to Virtually Onboard Employees and Create Belonging

Think Big Picture, Not Shopping List 

Another issue with job descriptions is that organizations simply haven’t invested the time in researching what the role really entails and how it impacts the business as a whole.

“Many organizations don’t put enough thought into creating job descriptions,” Dalton said. “They tend to base the requirements for any role on the profile of the last successful job holder.” It would be better for organizations to carefully analyze the skills required for a specific role instead of sticking to a job description template, which might be years old.

“Job descriptions should be shorter, focusing on impact statements, especially if they are being used in recruitment processes to attract candidates,” Dalton said. “Preferably, they should avoid funky job titles that have no real meaning!” She also points that traditional job descriptions are often “riddled with non-inclusive language,” which may deter good candidates from applying.

Organizations may only update job descriptions when the current job holder leaves, which could mean a gap of years before they revisit a job description. “My observation is that managers hate writing job descriptions and HR struggles to keep track of them.” Dalton said.

In interactions with clients, Knize sees a lot of job descriptions, many of which are simply lists of requirements such as education and years of experience.

“They often reflect what an idealized incumbent would possess and do not actually describe the critical skills needed to perform the job successfully,” Knize said. “Job descriptions may also focus too much on including all the small details of a job and fail to capture and clearly describe the overarching purpose of the role and the skills required to perform the job.”

Related Article: What Is Talent Management?

Reassess Your Job Descriptions in the Wake of COVID-19

Perhaps your organization already has a particular cadence for when you refresh job descriptions, for instance, in the run-up to annual performance reviews or before recruiting to fill an existing position.

Now may be a perfect time for your organization to look again at job descriptions. In the wake of COVID-19, some of your employees may have taken on additional responsibilities or their roles may have shifted as you’ve adjusted your operations. If employees remain working remotely full-time post-pandemic, they may need different competencies to complete their daily tasks.

“From what I’ve observed, many organizations are realigning their processes across all areas to ensure agility in the post-COVID world,” Colescott said. “They’re reviewing people, process and technology to find the most efficient way to be agile.”

While he’d like to think organizations are busily updating existing employees’ job descriptions, Colescott believes their focus is more on rapidly acquiring talent to fill known gaps in their workforce. “More than likely, as the turbulent shifts subside in business, job descriptions will be reviewed as the new organizational structures are solidified,” he said. "Then, they can backfill jobs and titles aligned to the realities of the job and the person."

A change in thinking to focus on skillsets rather than jobs may help organizations respond quickly to sudden and unexpected shifts, according to Knize. Organizations need the ability to identify if it's feasible to easily deploy employees with transferable skillsets to new roles or if those skills need to be developed, and whether existing jobs will need to be reimagined.

“A repository of well-written and maintained job descriptions can be a useful tool in helping the organization define those key skills, identify gaps, and prepare for future challenges,” Knize said.

Related Article: Boost Organizational Resilience by Expanding Your Knowledge of Employee Skills

In Search of Better Job Descriptions

The traditional job description needs to change significantly to accommodate the changes driving professional agility and innovation, according to Colescott. “Essentially, it would boil down to the Goldilocks approach — agile enough to meet the need, yet vetted to avoid future heartburn or risk,” he said. “Instead of hiring from a checklist, look to a candidate who possesses the competencies that would align to a successful employee.”

Dalton agrees with the focus on competencies. “We frequently see inflated academic qualifications and demands for things like five years’ experience when a potential candidate could have acquired the necessary skills in three years,” she said. “We need to see a shift to more competence-based job descriptions as traditional benchmarks such as academic success are not necessarily solid predictors of good job performance.”

Colescott predicts a continuing move to roles being defined by skillsets and less tied to titles or detailed descriptions as organizations adopt more agile, team-based approaches to address work challenges. “Temporary in nature, either weeks or months, the teams will eventually disband,” he said. “My sense is that we will have fewer job titles and broader buckets of roles that align around skills. Like Lego blocks, this will allow organizations to be flexible.”


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