The End Of Job Descriptions?

I think it is important to challenge outdated HR thinking and practices.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Thirdly, they become outdated so quickly.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.


Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller
My 'Why' is to inspire a movement towards truly people-centred organizations. Organizations which see the person first and the employee second. A Coach, facilitator, and catalyst for positive change, I thrive on the challenge of making the world of work better and more humanized for people in organizations. I love networking and collaborating to share fresh ideas, insights and to learn. I have an in-depth knowledge and practical 'hands-on' experience of leading HR and Organizational Development projects. I am a visionary who rethinks what is possible when it comes to HR, leadership and the future of work, igniting positive change in others. Never forgetting the real reason behind my work, I love spending time with my wife Kelly and my children who are the centre of my world and the reason behind my 'Why'.

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    • It’s a good point Carol, there may be some sector specific issues which need to be considered in all of this.

    • I agree that the use of JDs need to be improved greatly, but ending them is not the answer. First of all, let’s remember that they (primary function, qualifications, skills,etc.) are used for compensation purposes to accurately market-price jobs – a key item not mentioned. Second, for basic supervisory, professional, administrative, clerical, technician and similar jobs, generic JDs can be used with little or no need to update. Thirdly, the four or five key duties for higher level management jobs should be used to provide a basis for developing the annual business objectives for the job’s key performance indicators – all of these are key to engaging the employee with management. Fourth, they should be used to intertwine the role (what management needs from the job) and the employee’s expectations/ Fifth, providing the clarity of the fourth items provides the foundation for flexibility, adaptability and creativity. Sixth, performance compliance issues are real and expensive.

  1. The original purpose of job descriptions was two-fold – to control costs and make data-based decisions on how much to pay, and to inform the employee of the work to be done. That purpose still exists, but there are better ways to accomplish it. Salary control belongs in the hands of managers, not HR. And defining and developing skills and competence has to be fluid and led by leadership. That is a daunting task but methodologies like job families, personnel expense planning and competencies that weave through all processes help. For them to work, HR has to be willing to give up control, and accept the responsibility for pushing leadership work back to leaders.

    So glad to hear another HR professional with the same questions I have.

    • thanks Carol, you’re really talking my language! It’s always great to connect with like minded people. Thanks for the link to your blog and I look forward to discovering more about your work.

  2. Nice article, Kevin and I’m right there with you. I started my HR career 40 years ago writing job descriptions as a comp analyst. Back then, there was a purpose – they were a basis for pay levels computed as scientifically as possible. I watched as managers learned to game the “science” and do whatever they needed to get the salary grade they wanted. Then after downsizing in the 90s, there weren’t enough comp analysts to write them, so we pushed them back to managers to write, with HR “approval.” The intent was okay: define the job so that the employee knows what to do.

    But your point about the work today being different is a good one. So then I watched as other parts of HR introduced skill profiles (recruiting) and competencies (L&D) because job descriptions were worthless to them. And Comp kept on mandating job descriptions.

    To be continued.

    • Thank you for the kind comments Carol. I agree and job descriptions were largely derived from Taylorism and scientific theories of management. It was a logical approach in a mass production environment where division of labour and efficiency were the main priorities. Most business operates in a very different world now, much more fluid, technology and automation driven, with an emphasis on creativity rather than conformity.