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Having People Focus On The Things That Matter - Writing And Using Job Descriptions

Aug 17, 2007
The subject of job descriptions is by far the most popular one on our website and often arises when we talk to groups of CEOs and senior managers.

While people roll their eyes when we raise the issue, which we do when the subject of recruitment, performance management, training or succession planning come up, they are usually forced to concede that a practical statement of what someone has to achieve would be useful.

This is really no surprise. A survey which asked the question "Do you know what is expected of you in your job?" brought the following responses. 3% didn't know, 12% were unsure, 44% were fairly sure and only 41% knew exactly. This means 59% didn't know exactly what the boss wanted.

When we share this news with groups of managers only very few of them think they would fare any better.

It would seem self evident that if each employee had a clear statement of what is required to be done to be successful, this would help them - and their boss.

Satisfaction would increase, career development would be facilitated, fair rewards would be easy to manage, recruitment would be more effective - the list goes on.

Why don't we do it? Well some people find them hard to write, some don't want to commit - this may be the job holder or the manager - and some people have had bad experiences of lengthy detailed documents that are less than practical.

There have also been instances of people hiding behind them and saying "it's not on my job description." We think this is altogether a symptom of another management problem! If the relationship has got to this stage, it's not a job description issue.

Our preferred approach to developing job descriptions is to help employees write their own. This way they have ownership - and they probably know their job best. This is not to say they choose what they do for a job.

If they know what the business is aiming to achieve, and their department or section, they will, with guidance, be able to draft their own to a stage where they can sit down with their manager to finalise the details. During the course of doing this they learn how to identify results that link to business objectives and how to measure them.

Here are the main sections we feel should be included.

Primary Objective - One or two sentences that give the overall reason for the job. Eg a Production Manager's may be "To deliver product within the agreed specifications within budget and agreed production schedules."

This should directly link to the overall business and/or department's objectives. Every person should be able to see the linkage between their job and what the whole organization is aiming for - no matter how junior or senior the role.

Key Result Areas (KRA's) - There may be up to five or six of these. Anymore than this number and you are probably just listing tasks.

Keep on asking "why" and eventually you should arrive at a useful end result. If not, why are you performing that task? eg "Reporting: Provide accurate monthly reports to ensure the management team has a clear picture of current stock and back orders."

Grouping KRA's under headings sometimes helps in the writing. eg Planning, Operations, Quality, Reporting, Staff Development.

Measures - We need to have specific measures in place along side each KRA to ensure there are no arguments as to whether the results have been achieved or not. eg for a Credit Officer this may include "Outstanding debtors to be no more than 35 days on average and no individuals more than 40 days without legal action being commenced."

Typical qualifications and experience - This section gives an indication of the background required to carry out the job (it does not have to be the background of the current job holder) and helps us gauge the size and level of the job compared to others.

Other relevant information - This area can take care of other elements relevant to the job such as shift work, travel requirements or dealing with certain types or people.

This same format can be used for jobs at all levels. It provides a clear, results focused, unambiguous statement of what is required and allows people to still use their initiative in achieving the outcomes rather than having to follow a list of detailed instructions.

Our experience demonstrates that the many benefits at both an individual employee level, and at a business level, far outweigh any time and effort associated with developing and using JDs.

Just think about the competitive edge your business can have if, in the average business, 59% of employees don't know what they're supposed to be doing and, in your business, employees do know and they know how that contribution is being measured and where it makes a difference to your business.
About the Author
Paul Phillips is a Director of Horizon Management Group; a specialist human resource management consulting firm. He has over 30 years experience in HR and, while based in Australia, has worked in a number of overseas locations. www.horizonmg.com
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