A New Approach to Writing Job Descriptions

Posted: 6th October 2023

Jobs today are changing fast, and traditional job descriptions can’t keep up. As new technologies disrupt processes and require new skills, and as companies are moving toward more and more project-based work, we are beginning to see the evolution of job descriptions away from static, holistic prescriptions that follow an employee for years to dynamic guidance that changes based on needs.

For example, a company that hired an employee for a certain set of tasks might find that four months later, a different set of tasks takes strategic priority. Even though that employee has the right skills for the new tasks, the employee can point to their job description to decline to do the new task by saying that it wasn’t what they were hired to do — or, if they take on the new tasks, their job description becomes quickly out of date.

This article is one in a series on “Creative Resilience: Leading in an Age of Discontinuity,” the theme of the 15th annual Global Peter Drucker Forum. See the conference program here.

Because most job descriptions are firmly embedded in the employee’s core area of work, they also tend to encourage silos in the organization by discouraging cross-functional collaboration. Rigid job descriptions also discourage experimentation with new technologies that may have been unimaginable at the time the description was written. And finally, narrow job descriptions can mean that an employee isn’t able to fulfill the full range of their talents at work, leaving them dissatisfied.

In response, companies are starting to approach job descriptions in new, more flexible ways based on outcomes, skills, and teams. I’ll describe each of these in turn, but first let’s look at how job descriptions came to be what we know them as today, and what they do.

Why Job Descriptions?

Modern job descriptions can be traced back to the industrial revolution. As factories and other large organizations became more common, there was a need to define roles and responsibilities more clearly to improve efficiency and productivity. This led to the creation of standardized job titles and descriptions, which outlined each position’s tasks, duties, and requirements .

By the mid-20th century they became even more formalized and detailed.

Today, job descriptions are used for several purposes:

  1. Recruitment: They help prospective applicants understand whether they would be a good fit for the position by providing a clear outline of what a role involves and what skills and qualifications are required.
  2. Role clarification: They help clarify the responsibilities, tasks, and expectations of a role, helping to avoid role ambiguity and conflict.
  3. Performance management: They serve as a benchmark for assessing employee performance.
  4. HR management: They help plan employee development, set compensation, and serve as legal documentation.

So how can job descriptions be made more flexible but still address these needs?

The More-Flexible Approaches

We’re seeing three new approaches taking hold as companies grapple with rapidly-changing, project-based roles.

Outcome-focused role descriptions

Some companies are beginning to articulate the outcomes expected from a role rather than the specific tasks or duties the employee is required to perform. This approach provides flexibility for the employee to determine the best way to achieve those results, fostering innovation and initiative and, importantly, allowing them to change their approach as conditions shift.

For instance, instead of a sales manager’s job description listing tasks such as “meet key clients once per quarter ” or “prepare sales reports on a monthly basis,” it would describe outcomes such as “increase regional sales by 15%” and “improve customer retention by 10%.”

Google uses results-oriented job descriptions to keep their top talent motivated. Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations, explains: “At Google, we believe that results-oriented job descriptions are essential for attracting and retaining top talent. When employees know what is expected of them and how they will be measured, they are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their work.”

For example, traditionally, a design ethicist job description might have listed analyzing Google’s search algorithm for bias once per month, or keeping a privacy risk log up to date. But in an outcomes-based job description, a design ethicist is instead given the broader mandate of identifying ethical risks in Google’s products or developing guidelines for the ethical design of products. That gives both the employee and Google leeway for the specific tasks of the design ethicist to change as technologies develop — as generative AI is introduced into Google’s offerings, for instance.

Skills-focused role descriptions

Other companies create dynamic documents that outline the skills and capabilities an employee brings to a position or should aim to develop. With this approach, the emphasis shifts from the tasks a person is supposed to complete to their talents and how those can be applied within company projects.

For a company to execute on this approach means identifying the skills and qualifications needed for each role and developing training programs and career paths that help employees build those skills. The aim is to fully utilize and develop an individual’s abilities and strengths, which can lead to increased job satisfaction as well as performance. It also means that companies can quickly assemble teams of people with the skills and experience needed to tackle specific projects or initiatives.

For example, a data analyst with superior visualization skills could seamlessly shift from creating complex data models to crafting visual reports, depending on project needs. The analyst would follow a specialized training regimen tailored to enhance specific skills, such as advanced visualization techniques and data storytelling. By focusing on the analyst’s unique strengths and broader skill set, the organization not only hones their existing expertise but also creates a more well-rounded, versatile professional.

Team-based role descriptions

Lastly, instead of giving each team member a job description, some companies assign individuals to teams that are given a collective set of objectives, outcomes, and deliverables. It is then up to the team to collectively decide how each member will contribute.

A well known example is Spotify, where employees are part of small, cross-functional teams called “squads,” each of which has a specific mission. Each squad autonomously decides how to meet its objectives best, relying on collective decision-making and their deep knowledge of each member’s strengths and preferences. The teams meet frequently to discuss challenges, assess progress, realign goals, and resolve any conflicts or bottlenecks that result from the task distribution.

Overcoming Challenges

Beyond simple resistance to change, there are a number of challenges that companies moving away from traditional job descriptions need to address.

The most basic is unclear job and performance expectations. Without a traditional job description, how does an employee know what is expected of them? How can a manager evaluate their performance objectively and follow fair compensation and promotion practices without clear guidelines in hand?

There are other ways that managers can work with their teams to define roles and responsibilities and create a shared understanding of what each person is responsible for. For example, let’s say you manage a team of software developers, and your company is shifting to team-based job descriptions. You might work with your team to create a skills matrix that identifies the skills and capabilities of each team member and then use tools like Agile methodology or Kanban boards to help manage workloads and prioritize tasks.

For recruitment, a competency-based interview process is a more effective way to assess a candidate’s suitability for a flexible, dynamic role than a traditional interview, which often focuses on the candidate’s experience and qualifications.

For performance evaluations, tools such as 360-degree feedback can help a manager to assess the employee’s performance in various areas, including their skills, capabilities, and contributions to the team.

More thorny issues can include legal compliance —such as Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) position status in the U.S. — which can be challenging without a formal job description. Creating a “role compliance document” for each employee that provides a broad outline of the job and details such as job classification (exempt or non-exempt) can help here. Also, monitor employee tasks, responsibilities, and actual working hours to ensure that they align with labor guidelines; depending on your circumstances, this could be a periodic review or meticulous record-keeping enabled by modern HR software.

As organizations become more agile and responsive and technology enables new forms of work in the coming years, the trend towards project-based work and the need for more flexible job descriptions will continue. This radical disruption requires a shift in mindset and culture and asks individuals, managers, leaders, and organizations to experiment, learn, and adapt to new working methods. But with the right mindset and approach can lead to a more agile, responsive, and innovative organization better equipped to meet future challenges.

Source: A New Approach to Writing Job Descriptions (hbr.org)

Categories: News