A question about job descriptions….out of the mouth of babes

job descriptionsOnce upon a time, there was a young woman studying to become an HR professional. Her professor invited a panel of senior HR professionals from each area of HR to meet with the class: Compensation, Recruiting, Employee Relations, Learning & Development and a senior HR generalist, who called himself an HR Business Partner.

After presentations, the professor opened up the dialogue to questions from the students. The young woman asked the group, “I wrote job descriptions in a summer internship, but I’m still not exactly sure how they are really used in an organization. Can you help me understand?”

The Recruiting manager quickly said, “We require that hiring managers provide the job description, but then we interview the hiring manager to build a hiring profile, which is much more specific to the actual job being filled.”

The young woman asked, “Do you use the job description to build the profile?” “No,” said the recruiter. “It is usually too generic to be helpful.”

The young woman turned to the Learning & Development manager and said, “I imagine you used the knowledge, skills and abilities listed on the job description to develop a learning curriculum?”

“No,” said the L&D manager, “We focus our curriculum on competencies, which are not typically provided on the job description.”

“Well,” asked the young woman, “do the job descriptions serve a purpose in orienting new employees, and in setting expectations for performance?”

“We do make new employees sign their job description and return it to HR, so that we can defend any claims that an employee didn’t know what was expected of their performance,” said the Employee Relations manager.

“Oh, then the job descriptions are part of the annual performance appraisal?”

The HR Business Partner responded, “The job descriptions are too generic to really be helpful in performance appraisal, and since the performance management process is based on goals and competencies, the job description is not really relevant.”

The young woman turned to the Compensation manager. “So all of the information on the job descriptions is really the basis for the work you do?”

The Comp manager thought for a second. She shook her head and said, “Well, not really. We use the summary of the job to match jobs to market data so that we can place them competitively in salary ranges. I’d always thought that we put the knowledge, skills and abilities in for recruiting and learning, so that they have the bigger picture of the job, but it sounds like that isn’t the case.”

“A lot of what is in job descriptions is compliance related,” said the Employee Relations manager. We have to put the essential duties of the job in so that we can understand what accommodations we can make because of the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

“But I thought you said that the job descriptions were fairly generic? Wouldn’t that make it difficult to put essential duties that would be applicable to each person in the job?”

“Well,” said the Employee Relations manager, “if accommodations are requested, we actually talk with the hiring manager individually rather than rely on the content of the job description.”

“That brings up a good point,” said the young woman. “I assume that managers and employees find the job descriptions useful?”

The panelists chuckled a little. Finally, the Comp manager said, “I think they put them in a drawer, and bring them out only when they want the job to be graded higher than it is.”

“Well, I’m a little confused,” said the young woman. “My internship last year was helping to write job descriptions, and I’ve got to say that writing a job description is a lot of work. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like too much work for what the job descriptions actually provide to the organization?”

The professor, a long-time HR professional, jumped into the conversation to shed some light on the history of job descriptions. He said, “In the mid-1900s, the world of work was really different. Rather than work as we do today using our brains more than our hands, work used to be more prescribed. The duties actually spelled out what the worker did, and what he needed to know and do to perform the job. Job descriptions captured things like the scope of problem-solving, the breadth of knowledge required to do the job, the accountability for the job to make decisions, and the working conditions.”

He continued, “Once the job description was complete, it was presented to a Job Evaluation Committee made up of operational leaders in the organization, and scored based on the factors. Those scores decided how much the job was worth in the organization’s salary structure.”

“Do we not use such a method today?” asked the young woman.

“Organizations don’t have time for that, and over the last two decades we have migrated to a simpler method of pricing jobs – look at what is paid in the open market for similar jobs,” said the professor.

The students and panelists looked around at each other, not sure what to say next.

“Okay, but this makes me feel like my internship was a wasted effort; I was doing a lot of work that didn’t get used. Can companies today really afford to allow that to happen? Everything I read about business and HR says that the workforce today is so busy and overwhelmed; why wouldn’t we take all that time and energy, and develop a single system or document that would actually be helpful to all of you, and to the managers and employees as well,” asked the young woman.


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