Anyone who has ever worked for a boss is likely familiar with it. You have either read it before you applied for that job, seen it when you signed your contract or dealt with it during your employment.
Have you guessed it already?
I am of course referring to the job description, job profile, job requirements or whatever definition your employer gave to that piece of text explaining your role in the organisation. A narrative summary of the main job characteristics, formalizing the exchange relationship on the part of what you are supposed to deliver in return for rewards.
A job description is one of the main instruments in HRM. It supports hiring managers in the recruitment, payroll managers in designing equitable pay systems, development managers in defining possible career paths, supervisors in managing the performance and process engineers in improving efficiency. Adding the job's reporting lines will establish an organisational hierarchy as well.
You would imagine such a key tool to be maintained in detail. However, the reality is quite often far from this. It is not uncommon that organisations have to do a review of their job descriptions after 4, 5 years of neglect. Or worse, once started as concise descriptions of the main responsibilities, job descriptions have become interminable lists of tasks and activities. And yet organisations tend to militantly hold on to these paper truths. As if their absence would result in destruction and chaos.
At the same time, job descriptions become extremely important for employees during role evaluation or restructuring. When change can potentially result in adverse consequences for pay, employers have find themselves more than once in a dispute with the employee over it.
So why do people give so much value to job descriptions?
I have come to learn that job descriptions are needed in the absence of purpose, mastery and autonomy (see also Drive by Daniel Pink). People who understand what needs to be done, are capable and empowered to do it, would not need them. High-performers in your organisation who take responsibility over and beyond what they should contribute on paper, probably do not know even know what their job description says. Their drive is by no means influenced by anything remotely close to paper-based responsibilities.
But when purpose, mastery and autonomy are absent in an organisation, you will very likely not find leadership either. People follow people, not paper. But in the absence of a strong leader, they will hold on to that one certainty they have on paper which justifies their presence in the organisation and substitutes for a lack of purpose.
You will recognize organisations with paper-based responsibilities when the majority of employees are not going the extra mile for their employer; there are always individual exceptions. Minor inconveniences grow to be perceived as aggravating factors, often resulting in excessive claims for extra reward - to the extent of 'billing behaviour'. Worst-case scenario, clinging to paper-based responsibilities can create an organisational culture of island-thinking and dumping problems.
Should we then abolish job descriptions?
Job descriptions will go extinct one day. Forcing its extinction as a strategy would not be my advice. Focusing on leadership, on the contrary, is for many reasons advisable. Simultaneously you could work on a culture in which people learn to focus on what the organisation wants to achieve. The purpose and mastery which is fostered this way will shape an organisation with change capacity, forward-focused, instead of hanging on to the past by static documents with activities that were needed 4, 5 years ago. It will create a culture in which people will more likely go the extra mile, as their job is not defined by words but by a shared purpose they believe in.
Do you think job descriptions are still relevant? Do they make you go the extra mile?