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Can Employers Change Employees' Job Descriptions?

September 22, 2022 Talent Management
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

In a dynamic economy, the needs and demands of companies can change on a dime. Recent years have proven that. This means an employee's role might need to be adjusted accordingly. Some new responsibilities may be added, while others may no longer be relevant.

The recent move to remote workplaces, for instance, is a good example of how functions and responsibilities have evolved for many workers. But without a clear reason why, can employers change an employee's job description without warning? More importantly, can they do so without disrupting the workplace and risk losing their workers?

Let's explore.

The Big No-Nos

Before diving into the ways employers can implement changes in job descriptions, it's important to note from the start, the times when adjustments to an employee's role within the company are frowned upon — or flat out unlawful. These include:

  • Any change based on race, gender, religion or another legally protected quality.
  • A change that is made to punish an employee for speaking up, especially if they are reporting an illegal or discriminatory activity.
  • A change that is made to punish an employee for taking time off for previously agreed-upon reasons such as health emergencies, bereavement, etc. 
  • A change that is made to punish an employee for being involved or promoting a union.
  • A change that prevents an employee from taking family leave when guaranteed by federal laws.
  • A change that forces out an employee by either making it dangerous or impossible to achieve (also known as constructive dismissal).
  • A change that goes against contractual obligations.

Basically, employers and employees must mutually respect the terms of their employment agreement as well as the terms of the law where they operate. Outside of that, managers have a legal right to change a job role at their discretion.

Related Article: 5 New Job Roles for the Hybrid Work Era

When Changes to a Job Description Are Warranted

There are many reasons why a manager might need to change an employee's scope of work. As mentioned earlier, the move from office to remote, for instance, may warrant a revision of roles. In these circumstances, the remote employee may be unable to complete certain tasks which required an in-person presence sorting out the mail, filing documents and performing other in-person activities, which were previously part of the job description. These are obvious and reasonable reasons for the change.

Other times, however, the employee might need to take on new tasks and drop others because the business needs have changed. The company may have discontinued a product line/service, moved away from specific marketing avenues or introduced new technology that makes the task obsolete.

There are many reasons why business needs may change, but within these circumstances, employers must consider how best to utilize the employee in the new reality. That could mean transferring the individual's unique set of skills to other business areas or providing training on new tasks that elevate the person's role within the company. These are valid examples that would justify a change in job description. 

Related Article: Cultivating Middle Managers as Change Agents

Is the Era of the Static Job Description Over?

A common shortcut used to cover changes to a role or additional asks of employees is the inclusion of a vague line in the job description stating "additional duties may be assigned" without further explanation. While this can provide the employer with a certain amount of leeway, a balance must be found between new tasks and those accounted for in the description.  

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Tyrone Smith argued for more dynamic job descriptions that focus on skills, not tasks, which allow for the kinds of growth and dynamism today's work environments demand: "In practice, this involves hiring managers, HR executives, and other people managers emphasizing development and growth, rather than portraying job responsibilities as constrained within a particular 'lane.'"

It's a sentiment echoed by John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan, authors of the book "Work Without Jobs." Speaking on the Get Reworked podcast, Boudreau described a similar future to what Smith envisioned: "the idea of the new work operating system is that all of those deconstructed elements are now going to live in a way on their own, they're no longer going to be exclusively bundled into jobs, job holders and degrees. And that requires mindsets, leadership approaches and perhaps most importantly, HR systems that can manage and track and optimize at that deconstructed level."

Related Article: Let's Not Go Back to 'Normal'

How to Change an Employee’s Scope of Work

But for employers who have not yet embraced the skills-based approach to job descriptions, there are ways to approach affected employees to announce a change in their respective roles, provided they have good reason for the changes. That may be the trickiest and most important part of the process because how this is done can have an impact on the entire workforce culture. Leaders who are transparent and take time to talk through the change are more likely to get a positive result.

Here are seven steps managers seeking to change an employee's scope of work may want to follow before and after the change to ensure a smooth transition.

1: Reviewing the rationale

The first step is to conduct a thoughtful analysis of the current situation to confirm that the potential job description change is necessary and legal. HR leaders should take a close look at the employee's relationship with their manager and coworkers to confirm that the change is not only required by an inevitable change in the business but that it also isn't retaliation for anything.

If necessary, consultant a business or employee lawyer to confirm the decision. Moving forward blindly can be a costly move if the change is perceived to be discriminatory.

2: Analyzing the job requirements

Once the change has been determined to be required, leaders should meet with each affected employee to discuss what the change means for them. These employees should be provided with:

  • The reason why their role is changing. 
  • What is now expected of them.
  • Any option they may have with regard to the change.

"Talk to the employee about the change. This is the most direct way to make the change, and it allows for the employee to ask any questions they may have about the new duties," said Jie Min, CTO at Singapore-based Airgram.

3: Keeping the doors open

Once the change has been announced, don't close the door to future dialogue. Ask for the affected employees' feedback and input on how this transition can be improved.

Also keep the lines of communications open. Questions and emotions can arise at a later time, once the news have been absorbed. Give it some time before assuming the hard part is over.

4: Responding

Of course, if the change is perceived as a promotion or a great opportunity, there may not be a lot of negative feedback. But if there are concerns, leaders and managers should respond thoughtfully. Depending on the concerns, the response may be made in writing.

Making sure to hear the person out, weigh in suggestions and fears, and craft a respectfully and reasonable response is key. Remember this wasn't part of the original agreement with this employee, so some reluctance to the new offer can be normal.

5: Setting a date

Managers should set a specific date for when the job change will take effect, ideally giving the person time to adjust to the news and prepare mentally. That time should also not be too far in time; one week to one month is a good rule of thumb.

6: Providing training and acclimation

Most companies know that when new processes or technologies are introduced, training should be provided. This is the same scenario. Unless the changes are minimal, employees asked to perform new tasks should be offered training to help them adjust.

7: Adjusting to growing pains

It's one thing to plan the change; it's another to implement it. As the employee begins to perform the new tasks, they may uncover some cracks in the process or some challenges along the way. 

"Review your goals every quarter and note what worked and what didn't,” said Justin Marshall, head of digital at Darra, Australia-based Desky.

The change might require some smoothing out, and that's normal. So, managers should regularly check in with the employee to analyze and adjust the new role to help overcome any unforeseen issues discovered after the transition.

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