For many years, like many HR professionals, I’ve tolerated job descriptions as a necessary evil, something that was just a frustrating part of normal organisational and HR life.
But as I’ve been more actively exploring the psychology, practices, and processes of what makes people healthy, happy, and highly productive at work, I’ve realised how destructive and damaging our reliance on job descriptions can be.
What's wrong with job descriptions?
We’ve developed a form of 'learned helplessness' when it comes to job descriptions – widely recognising their limitations but using them as the only approach to capturing how and what people should do in their jobs.
You could think of them like a blister on the foot of organisations caused by ill-fitting footwear, yet despite wincing, we’ve never thought to change the shoes we are wearing.
The first job description is a relic of the industrial revolution, and while technology has made the production of job descriptions faster and easier than ever, we have never stopped to consider whether they are still relevant in the modern world of work.
With the mainstream adoption of AI, I imagine many HR professionals are licking their lips at the prospect of outsourcing the production of job descriptions to a virtual third party.
Yet the reality is that no matter how they are generated, rather than create value, traditional job descriptions are often an invisible impediment to success.
There are five reasons job descriptions might be hindering rather than helping your organisations.
Firstly, traditional job descriptions box people in, stifling innovation and personalisation.
Secondly, they quickly become outdated and, like new cars driven off a forecourt, they lose their value as soon as they are produced.
Thirdly, job descriptions often deviate from reality and fail to capture the true essence of what people actually do in their day-to-day work.
Fourthly, they often overlook the core purpose and value of a role, failing to provide employees with a sense of meaning and intrinsic motivation.
Lastly, job descriptions often get lost within organisations, buried away and rarely accessed beyond initial hiring or performance evaluations.
While technology has made job descriptions easier and faster to complete, it has not improved their quality or relevance. We need an alternative to fixed job descriptions that reflects our modern ways of working.
Rather than tethering someone to a fixed job description, proponents of more people-centred and self-managed approaches to working encourage us to trust people to take a different approach.
In progressive and people-centred organisations, jobs are often defined by people rather than the organisation, and in self-managed structures, the definition of a job or role is a collective effort.
At Tailored Thinking, we advocate using an agile 'Job Canvas' rather than a fixed description which is shaped and updated by people as they develop themselves and their jobs.
I understand that completely discarding job descriptions may not be practical or feasible for many organisations. Therefore, I propose a more modest approach.
The next time you encounter a job description, whether drafting, reviewing, or considering its usefulness, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this job description add value to the role, colleagues, or the organisation?
- Does it allow space for individuals to personalise and grow their roles?
- Does it provide a realistic representation of the job?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, consider making incremental changes to enhance the document's quality and impact.
Whilst I don't expect everyone to discard job descriptions overnight, it is time for us to challenge the status quo and explore alternatives that truly capture the dynamic and multifaceted nature of work in the modern era.
Rob Baker is founder and chief positive deviant of Tailored Thinking