Are Job Descriptions Useful?

A job description defines a person’s qualifications for the role along with their duties, authorities (i.e. the tasks they can do without asking permission first), and performance criteria. A well constructed and delivered job description:

  • Provides clarity around what people should do
  • Advises on how to do it
  • Prioritizes tasks
  • Measures progress
  • And offers guidance if they produce unexpected results

There are many benefits to using job descriptions, so why do so many small businesses operate without them?

One of the main reasons is that they take effort to create. When we ask clients if their company has job descriptions, many say, “Yes, we do, but I’ve never shown anyone – they aren’t quite finished.”

In companies where they were completed and presented, the leader has sometimes lost interest or expended all their energy in the creation process – so the failure is in the quality of the delivery. The job description was unceremoniously emailed as an attachment never to be seen or heard from again and the effort was wasted.

Equally common is the un-customized or out-of-date job description. In a small business, people try to cut corners in creating job descriptions by downloading generic versions from the internet, or using job descriptions “off of the competitor’s truck.” The lack of detail on how to do that particular job in your particular company makes it unlikely the document will be referenced.

The pace of change in the business world is accelerating. Job descriptions from even a few years ago are quickly outdated. It is very likely your job descriptions don’t include your updated branding or reference your current accounting software.

Another issue is a lack of specific instructions, or procedures, to accompany the job descriptions. A job description may tell someone they should “manage client relationships” but without the steps outlining how, it is unlikely two people would interpret that item in the same way.

More often than not, we encounter vaguely written, poorly delivered job descriptions, which are, at best ignored and at worst, create an antagonistic climate in an organization.

How Do I Create Job Descriptions?

The first step is to figure out what tasks everyone in your company is currently doing. The fastest way to do this is to distribute a questionnaire so you can collect the data.

Once you have collected the tasks from each individual, consolidate the lists so you have just one that represents the activities for your entire organization.

About 80% of what people are doing, they should be doing. But the other 20% can likely be reallocated or removed. This will also make the tasks that are simply not getting done appear glaringly obvious.

When you review the list, it should also become obvious what tasks are redundant, which ones are missing, and which are being done by the wrong person(s). If it isn’t obvious, you could benefit from a third party looking at the list. Your lawyer, accountant, consultant, or advisory board should all be able to help in this capacity.

With the list of what needs to be done, and the positions defined, you can now begin to plan how you will measure the results. Set the performance criteria for each position to reflect pieces of your annual plan. For example, if your sales goals are $10 million this year, then the sales manager is responsible for that revenue and each of the sales reps are responsible for a portion of the manager’s goal.

Creating job descriptions is not a simple task and it is time consuming. But there is no better way to communicate your expectations of what you need people to do and the results you are looking for.

I Have Job Descriptions – Why Don’t They Work?

If you have created a new position since your job descriptions were created, this is a strong clue that it is time for an overhaul of your existing job descriptions. For example, if you have hired an executive assistant, or upgraded from a controller to CFO but the job descriptions are out-of-date, you need to revisit all of the job descriptions, not just add a new one.

A new position signals that new duties have been added to your organization as a whole, that some have been shifted from one position to another, and that some are now likely redundantly completed by two people.

Another indication that job descriptions are not working effectively is if the market you operate in has significantly changed or if you have revised your service offerings. Typically, these things happen to a mature company in a mature market every 3 – 5 years. To remain at the top of its game, the company will need to restructure on that same timeline.

The timeline accelerates in young or growing firms that are experiencing rapid turnover in their management team, particularly when it comes to senior level succession.

If, however, you have been diligent in maintaining your job descriptions as the market and your company change, but they still aren’t getting you the results you expect, the issue is a deeper one and may require a little more digging.

Bellrock is a management consulting and change management firm where remarkable is expected. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share!

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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