I think it is important to challenge outdated HR thinking and practices. It’s become a major interest of mine having worked most of my life in HR roles. One such practice is job descriptions. I think we need to see an end to traditional job descriptions for many reasons.
Firstly, we need to define our expectations by the person and not the role. This is an important distinction. Job descriptions can come across as restrictive and controlling. Often, HR recycles the same list of duties, which don’t emphasise the behaviours needed or what success looks like to the organization. How useful is that for the job holder? I’ve never been that confident that people really read and absorb their job descriptions anyway. Our focus should be on the unique character and attributes of the individual person we are employing. Wouldn’t a better approach be for people to craft their own roles over time based on their strengths, interests and customer requirements?
Secondly, we all recognize that flexibility and adaptability are crucial for success in the modern world. Rigid job descriptions can end up stifling creativity and innovation. Too often people end up working ‘to their job description’ rather than focussing on the important work that really makes a difference. Things like being spontaneous to take advantage of opportunities or to deliver exceptional customer service. Desirable behaviours like contributing to company culture through acts of kindness and compassion.
Thirdly, they become outdated so quickly. Change occurs rapidly in modern organizations. The way we organize work, therefore, needs to become more fluid and responsive. This is one of the reasons that traditional hierarchical command and control structures are being rethought, largely because the process of decision-making is just too slow and customer expectation has already moved on to something new and different. When we need speed and agility hardwired within our organizations, do practices such as job descriptions support or hinder this?
Rather than just tinker with a process that isn’t working, we need to fundamentally change the way HR thinks about things.
We can call a job description something different, such as a role profile, but does this really change things? The modern world of work is very different, even 5 years ago, and the pace of change is relentless. Despite these dynamic conditions, HR seems to remain wedded to producing rigid job descriptions that work counter to efforts to build high trust cultures. I suspect this is because some in HR still believe that job descriptions provide a degree of control, in that HR can evidence the duties people are not delivering from a performance management perspective. We remain too focussed on compliance rather than building cultures of caring, trust, and genuine empowerment.
I relate to this, and I’ve been there myself in the past. In 20 years of HR work, I’ve never seen anyone become more motivated by what is written in their job description. I’ve seen plenty of people become more motivated through coaching, encouragement, meaningful conversations which provide both challenge and support.
We now need a different form of control, one which isn’t based on bureaucracy and documents like job descriptions but one that is based on a deep and meaningful human connection.
HR needs to connect people with the purpose of our organizations and how their individual contribution makes a difference. I’d argue this is our HR niche. We need to provide more autonomy and control over how the work is done. When we start from the premise that we really do trust people, this leads to more engagement and a willingness to act in the best interest of the organization, not less.
It’s time for HR to ditch the job description comfort blanket. There are other HR practices we could do with ditching but let’s start with job descriptions. How much HR and Management Time could we free up for other more important work? I’m talking about the important work centred on building strong and resilient human workplace cultures where people can really thrive. With this agenda, I just don’t think HR can afford to be preoccupied with administrative functions like producing job descriptions any longer.
I’d argue that the HR traditional approach to producing job descriptions works against our efforts to build better engagement within organizations. We might be talking about documents that contain lists of duties and responsibilities but the message behind job descriptions and why we continue to use on them is much more important.
Fundamentally, we need to see the person first, and the task or function second.
HR needs to be focussed on helping to build cultures where you are valued for who you are, your character and contribution, and not the job title you hold or duties you undertake. Yes, I recognize this is a big shift in HR mindset, but we need to be brave and lead a movement in this direction.
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