Do we need job descriptions ?

Do we need job descriptions

I am often asked : “Do we need job descriptions ?”

A lot of managers ask for them. Of course, these managers very rarely think of doing it themselves and writing down the description, maybe even with the input of the employees who hold those roles !

Why do these managers expect HR to write these down ? Because, put simply, writing a JD in the most widely accepted format is a chore.

In the GCC, companies with job descriptions will often follow a format very close to that established by Hay Group. You will cover main tasks and responsibilitites, and the attributes and skills required to deliver the job. This includes reporting lines, financial impact, number of people managed, principal expectations from the role, level of education and industry required, competencies etc. Gee ! That is a lot of information.

So the managers want the job descriptions but consider it is “an HR job” to deliver them, and try to act as if they shouldn’t be involved in the process.

I support two main reasons why the organisation should have job descriptions

If your company runs a formal, point-system job evaluation scheme, then these long and detailed job descriptions are needed in order to grade the jobs. It means you will require job descriptions for about 80% of all the roles in your organisation, the “reference” ones (positions with many job holders” and “unique” ones (positions that don’t relate to other jobs in the organisation.

The second, weaker argument is for recruitment purposes. When you are trying to fill an open position, you need to have a clear understanding of the kind of profile required for use by both the recruiting team and the candidates if you post the job on your intranet, the career section of your website, on job boards, or if you assign the recruitment process to an agency. In that case, job descriptions come in handy.

However, my strong belief is that in many cases, we can do without the traditional job descriptions.

Managers and HRBPs often tell me : “But Sandrine, how am I supposed to manage my team if they don’t have a job description to let them know what is required of them ? We need JDs to make it clear to them and so that they will do what I tell them !”

My initial reaction is simple : “What ???”. I am always shocked when I hear that a manager needs a job description in order to get his team to work and understand what they are doing.

You speak to them. Your role as a manager is actually to sit with your team members and let them know what you expect from them. Explain how your team is structured and why you created it that way. Clarify the areas where different members are supposed to work together, and in that case, who is responsible for what. Reassign workload if needed during periods of higher activity. If an employee struggles at the idea of an activity because they fear failure, explain to them how this ties to their development, what they will learn, and how you the manager will support them in performing this activity, either through training, your attention, some extra resources or  any other thing required.

I have managed teams as large as 13 direct reports with activities ranging from PRO to senior executives to HRIS to senior Compensation & Benefits experts and none of them had a formal job description. Yet, everyone knew what they needed to do, who to turn to incase of problem, and no-one ever refused to do a job “because it’s not written in (my) job description”.

This last sentence is one which drives me crazy as it denotes, more than anything else, either a totally disengaged employee, or one who struggles with workload already and can’t take more. None of these 2 conditions actually have to do with the fact of having a job description or not.

Setting expectations is not done through a JD. It is done through time spent with the team, collectively and individually. It isdone through constructive feedback shared with the employees. It is done through praise and recognition when the employee learns something new or delivers above expectations.

… Which leads me to performance management. HRBPs have reported to them that often, line managers tell them that they don’t know what kind of objectives to set to their team members, because they don’t have job descriptions.

Again, to me, this is not a valid argument.

A job description describes tasks and duties of the role. It is timeless in the sense that, if the environment of the job does not change too much, then the job description remains the same.

Performance Management however relies on setting specific goals for that year. It will often tie into project work or special activities that are more in focus at that point in time. The job description therefore does not contain the objectives of the year.

Even for roles that are quite standardised such as cashier or call-centre support or lower-skill staff jobs, you will use metrics to evaluate the performance of the employee. Those metrics tie into the role of the employees of course, but as a manager, even without a JD system, you would still look for the KPIs to assess how your team is performing. And on what are you measured by your boss at the end of the year ? Use this, not the job descriptions, as the basis for setting objectives if you don’t have projects assigned to them.

Now, as far as recruitment is concerned, as I said above, having a job description can help in launching the process. But honestly, most of the time, only a part of the content of the job description is really used : the outcomes (a few sentences describing the expectations around the role) and the required profile from an education, experience and skills standpoint.

The rest is usually described verbally at a later stage to the candidates once they qualify for the recruitment process. Either the position is a relatively standard one, for example, nurse, or it is not, in which case the live conversation between the hiring manager and the candidate will clarify things better than a piece of paper.

Therefore a formal job description is not always needed for recruitment purposes.

So I rest my case. Except for organisations that need to cling to a classic, point-factor system of job evaluation, I don’t believe that companies nowadays require to implement the conventional system of long, heavy, detail- and task-oriented traditional job descriptions. That is not to say that all organisations can survive without any system at all. I am convinced that there are alternatives – but that will be a topic for another post 😉 !

In the mean time, please let me know what your thoughts are ? Do you agree that in most cases, we don’t need the long, traditional job descriptions we have grown accustomed to expecting ? Or on the contrary, do you believe these are still relevant and why ? Feel free to express your views in the comments section !


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  1. Excellent post, Sandrine! I couldn’t agree more, especially since I am very often involved in those heavy, time-consuming job classification projects. I don’t believe they are necessary in all types of organisations. E.g. in my view large matrix organisations often require JD’s so as to ensure equal pay/equal treatment, while small, functional structures don’t require formal JD’s. Can’t wait for your next post on the subject! 🙂

  2. Hi Sandrine… I too agree… For startup / small companies, Job Description not necessary and the job holder requires to handle multiple roles.. But, as and when the orgn grows, the Job Description is needed for many reasons… such as for Role clarity / Performance management / Career Development / Succession Planning and for Recruitment as well.. So, for organizations which are intended to follow standard Compensation & Benefits methodologies, it is highly recommended to have Job Description as this acts as a basic document for other C & B exercises.. And yes, this needs a review once in a year… and HR to take a lead on it and support line managers / employees.

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