Job Descriptions: What's Missing

By Grant, Phillip C. | Industrial Management, November/December 1997 | Go to article overview

Job Descriptions: What's Missing


Grant, Phillip C., Industrial Management


With corporate downsizing and the resultant redistribution of work across the organization's human resource base, job descriptions have taken on increased utility. With organizations today constantly undergoing change in what, and how, work is done, the job description has emerged as a powerful tool for avoiding chaos.

The job description is the blueprint of the design of a job. It should accurately and completely show how the organization expects the person doing the job to spend his/her time in the organization. It should clearly state the kinds of "things" the employee is expected to do (or not to do) as a member of the organization. The job description is not a document stating rules, procedures, or work objectives. It is not a performance evaluation instrument. It is not a statement of desired abilities, personal attributes (these are not dimensions of the job), or behaviors.

It is, primarily, a statement of what functions (duties and responsibilities) the employee is expected to accomplish. It may include desired performance outcomes and/or general means for achieving those outcomes, in order to clarify how one is to use one's time in the organization; but the focus is on what the employee does, not on how-and not on how accomplishment will be measured.

It is important for the job description to be prepared well because it is the "base" document for almost all human resource administrative activity that occurs in an organization. If it is not a valid document-accurately and completely reflecting the design of the job-its value as a tool for guiding such critical human resource management functions as job and organizational design, reward system design, employee staffing and training, and performance evaluation and control is suspect.

Many employees complain that their job descriptions do not accurately reflect the expectations management has of them. In a recent study, 200 non-managerial employees, both permanent and temporary, were surveyed in 60 different organizations. Eighty-five percent of them said their job descriptions were quite deficient as a tool for helping them learn what they were supposed to do for the organization. Most said their job descriptions were incomplete, vague, or both. About 70 percent said that key elements of their jobs were left out of their job descriptions.

Intrigued by this widespread revelation that job descriptions do not tell what employers really want their employees to do, the study group followed up its initial survey with the same 60 organizations in an effort to learn just what is missing from job descriptions. In addition to revealing some of the general types of expectations that are frequently missing from job descriptions or related documents, this subsequent investigation made it clear that management often neglects to communicate many of these expectations to employees by any other means (many managers said they just assume that employees already know them). In other words, many employers simply do not explicitly communicate to their employees key "things" they expect them to do, or to avoid doing, for the organization.

Six categories of organizational expectations that were found to be frequently missing from the job descriptions of operative employees will be identified and discussed below.

Planning, communication, and control responsibilities

Planning and control responsibilities are frequently absent from the job descriptions of operative employees. Business literature and actual practice have traditionally emphasized these as management functions. Managers plan work and control performance; operative employees do what the managers plan. Thus, you find planning and control responsibilities depicted in managerial job descriptions but not in those of operative workers.

However, many non-managerial (operative) personnel find that they too must engage in work planning and performance control activity, in some cases a substantial amount of the time. …

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