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Job Descriptions

November 26, 2009

Closely held and growing businesses have typically left the task of job design to natural forces. The personalities of the employees and the normal course of events have generally shaped the development of the organization as well as the content of most of the jobs.

The work content of individual jobs and the structure of the organization tend to remain in their naturally evolved state until the occurrence of a business trauma that exposes their flaws. Under these circumstances relationships might well already have become strained, opportunities have been missed, and frustrations have become commonplace.

The introduction of a formal review process that looks at job content and organizational structure can make the force of change be an adaptive rather than a reactive one. When done methodically with candor and patience, the development of job descriptions are an important first step

There is little disagreement regarding the need for job descriptions. They clarify responsibilities. They define relationships between individuals within the company. Designed properly they will avert conflicts and misunderstandings. The development of job descriptions will also reveal if there are significant areas of responsibility that are inadequately or redundantly assigned within the company.

Without a current job description it is unreasonable to expect an employee to fully understand the scope of their responsibilities. It is difficult enough to do the job right, but without knowing if you are doing the right job, it is even more difficult. Without a formal job description, even the simplest of jobs will be interpreted differently. The cost of that difference will vary from business to business, but there will always be a cost.

Despite the obvious need and the many potential benefits that can be derived from them, job descriptions have developed an acceptance level one notch above the plague with most growing businesses. Many companies, concerned about creating an administrative burden, never start the process. Others begin, only to find that their considerable effort has been relegated to the bottom of the desk drawer.

Where has the development of job descriptions gone wrong? The amount of work and effort required to do the job right is usually underestimated. There are no instant solutions. Job descriptions are dynamic documents. They need to be current, accurate, and meaningful. The commitment to developing job descriptions is a continuing process, not an isolated project. They will only have validity if they accurately reflect reality, not utopia.

In order to be meaningfully interwoven into the fabric of the operations of a business, a job description must have certain key elements. First it must identify the position with a title. A title identifies job content in a word or two. It provides some prestige and identification to the jobholder and communicates to others. Job titles that are long and cumbersome are an indication of an organization that is having difficulty coming to grips with the rational assignment of duties.

Next, a job description should summarize in a brief narrative statement the responsibilities and purposes of the position. It should then contain a section that states the relationships between this position and other positions within the company. For example, “the Controller reports to the President, supervises all accounting personnel, and works on an equal level with the heads of the other departments”.

The information common to all job description formats is the statement of duties and responsibilities. The focus in this section should be on the major responsibilities. Don’t attempt to detail every activity that will be executed in the performance of the basic responsibilities. While this section will form the body of the job description, a good job description does not end here.

Once the specific responsibilities have been defined, it is necessary to establish standards of performance which describe the end results that are observable when the assigned duties have been satisfactorily performed. Every manager is continuously making judgments concerning the performance of employees. Every employee has an idea, not necessarily the same as the bosses, as to what constitutes adequate performance. Standards of performance are agreements as to exactly what will be considered satisfactory in respect to specific responsibilities.

Depending on the nature or type of work specified in the job description and the experience of the job holder, information regarding “how it should be done” might need to be included. For example, an entry level position for inventory control might well have significant turnover of inexperienced employees. In this instance, in addition to responsibilities and performance standards, procedures for executing the duties need to be incorporated into a meaningful job description.

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