Why job descriptions are useless

Job description

Let’s do a quick reality check on job descriptions. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. When was the last time you read your job description?
  2. Do you remember what it says?
  3. When was the last time you did something at work that you could not have done without your job description?

If your answers are 1) When I interviewed for the job, 2) Ehmmmm… not really and 3) I don’t think that has ever happened – then maybe it’s time to rethink the value of job descriptions.

I say job descriptions as they exist today amount to little more than organizational clutter and could easily be dropped altogether. Here’s why we should lose’em and what to do instead.

Why lose the job descriptions

1: Nobody reads them anyway – Do you? I thought not. I never did. Very few people do. Some companies don’t even have them, and they seem to manage just fine.

2: They’re always incomplete – Nobody’s job description contains all the crucial things they do or all their important resonsibilities. There’s always more to it than is captured on paper. If everybody in the company did only what it says in their job description, the company would soon grind to a halt.

3: They’re a hassle to create and maintain – They’re actually a lot of work to write and especially to update.

4: They’re usually obsolete – Most people’s jobs change a lot faster than their job descriptions. In many cases the job description only says what the job used to be like a long time ago – you know, way back in the last quarter.

5: They don’t help people do their jobs – I don’t think a single person has ever told me “today I accomplished something at work that I couldn’t possibly have done without my job description”. They’re close to useless in day-to-day operations.

Or have I overlooked something? Is there a reason why job descriptions are crucial (or merely useful) where you work?

What to do instead

But without job descriptions, how will people know what to do? Amazingly, most people still get their jobs done, even though the only time they’ve read their job description was 4 years ago when they signed on. Or if – gasp – their workplace doesn’t have job descriptions.

A much more productive and useful system is to let each department or team work out their responsibilities together. Here’s how a group of people who work together, eg. a department or a project team, can do something much more useful:

1: List the department’s tasks
Get the whole group together in front of a whiteboard. Give everyone a block of post-its and let each person write down their tasks and stick’em on the whiteboard, one task one each post-it. Let everybody contribute to this list. Make the list as complete as possible.

2: Ask why 3 times
For each task your department lists ask “Why do we do this?” In fact, for each item ask why three times. It might go something like this:

“Why are we making this report every week?”
“Beacuse Bob in marketing wants it”

“Why does Bob in marketing want it?”
(Somebody calls Bob)
“He gives it to the VP of marketing”

“Why does the VP of marketing want it?”
(Somebody corners the VP and asks her)
“She doesn’t really want it – she says she only ever looks at the aggregate reports”

That would be a good opportunity to stop doing that report every week. For each item on the department’s list, keep asking why until you know why your department does whatever it does. In many cases it’s obvious but some things are done simply because, well, we’ve always done it.

3: Group the tasks
Try to group tasks together that are best done together. For instance “Gathering data for sales report”, “Making sales report” and “Distributing sales report inside company” may be tasks that it makes sense to do together.

4: Let people choose tasks
Let people choose the tasks they would most like to work on. Let each employee go to the whiteboard in turn and pick out tasks they like to work on.

Of course there are two problems that can occur here:
1: A task is popular – more than one person wants to do it
This might be handled by sharing the task so people work on it together or take turns doing it. Another solution is to give the task to the person who does it the best. Or the person who needs to learn to do it. Find a solution.

2: A tasks is so unpopular that no one wants to do it
Take a close look at that task. Is it really necessary? If no, don’t do it. If it’s absolutely necessary people can take turns doing it or work on it together (shared misery is lessened misery). If there are enough unpopular tasks, each person can take one or two, so they’re about evenly disitributed. If the department almost exclusively has tasks that no one wants, then something is very wrong :o)

After all the tasks have been distributed, let each employee write a document containing his or her list of tasks and collect all the documents in a place where everyone can see them. A wiki would be a great place for these lists.

5: Repeat occasionally – Repeat the exercise once or twice a year to drop tasks that are no longer necessary, to re-assign tasks so people get some varity in their jobs and to delegate whatever new tasks may appear.

Why is this different from regular job descriptions?

  • It’s more complete and a truer reflection of what people really do
  • It’s easier to update
  • It’s more likely to be relevant to people in their jobs
  • It results in the team working together on the department’s tasks, rather than everyone working alone on “their” tasks

The result of this exercise:

  1. The department eliminates unnecessary tasks
  2. People spend more of their time working on tasks that they like and have chosen for themselves – remember that one person’s chore is another person’s dream job
  3. The group identifies unpopular tasks and distributes them evenly
  4. You avoid the situation where Johnson is always making the sales reports even though she hates doing them, while at the same time Smith, who loves making reports, is grumbling that Johnson always gets to do them

I’m betting that groups who do this or something similar will see:

  • Vastly increased productivity
  • Higher quality
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Lower employee turnover
  • More happiness at work

We did it at the IT-company I co-founded and to our great surprise we found that almost every single task was taken by someone who actively wanted to do it. For example, I got to write our newsletter, ’cause I really liked that challenge while Brian managed our intranet – a task he relished. Because we liked doing what we did we did great work. If we’d switched tasks, they would have been badly or not at all.

This approach may be a bold move for some companies and a slam-dunk for others but it gives a group something far more useful, relevant and inspiring than traditional job descriptions!

Sing it:

Job descriptions
What are they good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again!

In upcoming posts: Why we should also lose the org chart, the employee handbook and the business plan.

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29 thoughts on “Why job descriptions are useless”

  1. I’ll tell you why we need job description: we have to pass audit. And in some Big Quality Book it was once said that the process should be _documented_. Full process, even job descriptions. That’s it :)

  2. I dunno… I believe I need people to do specific jobs; I need a system developer and I need a QA engineer (in the same department, we’re not big enough to have separate departments for this). If I hire someone as a QA engineer, that _doesn’t_ want to do QA, then I don’t see that working out at all… What do you think?

  3. Pauly: Ah, that explains it. Now why are job descriptions in the audit? Or is it better not to ask that :o)

    Stressedmanager: True, A QA engineer who hates QA is not much of an asset.

    Here’s what we did: We obviously hired MS developers or java developers or project managers etc. which defined people’s basic work. The developers developed, the project managers… project managed, etc. But there’s still a lot of different stuff going on in a company, in a project or in a department that can be done by many different people.

    We used this process to distribute all of those tasks and the results were simply amazing. People did amazing work, because everybody did what they liked doing.

  4. My job descriptions always included something like “other assignments as required.” That was where I spent a lot of my time.

  5. For many people where I work, it’s union rules…can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the situation.

    @Fred: me too!

  6. “People did amazing work, because everybody did what they liked doing.” Sure … That’s important. But as a manager, shouldn’t I address that issue in any case? If someone wants to do other things (and are note happy with their current tasks), I should talk to them and figure out something?

    Job descriptions doesn’t necessarily mean that people are forced into doing things they don’t want to do… Hmmmm.. But I see your point regarding flexible jobs. Perhaps the job descriptions are flexible enough, or perhaps it’s just our company policy that is flexible enough.

  7. Fred: Heh, I like that. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s actually typical…

    Civil servant: Rules are rules. But WHY do we have that rule? Why are unions improving their members’ work lives by demanding job descriptions?

    Of course you could have the traditional job descriptions stowed away in a folder somehwere, and just go ahead and do what we did anyway.

    Stressedmanager: You got it! This is just one very efficient, inclusive way for a manager to address not for one employee but for all of them at once. And a flexible attitude towards job descriptions is a nice thing, because they rarely reflect reality.

  8. Alexander,
    I dont agree to what you say here. Are you saying whatever you have listed in the “What to do instead” section does not suffer from the problems you have mentioned in “Why lose the job descriptions” ?

    The points 1 and 5 of “Why lose….” do not hold good either while having job description or while listing out the department level tasks. There will be poeple who will not read the exahaustive task list, nor would it be helpful for some to perform their job. So lets leave these two out.

    Do you think such a department level list would be:
    a) complete?
    b) hassle free to maintain?
    c) never obsolete?

    The way I look at it, a job description is definitely useful for somebody joining the organization. Its not meant to be an exhaustive list of everything that person would ever do on the job. Its just meant to be a summary of the major tasks that this person would be responsible and accountable for. I believe that this level of clarity is certainly required to perform one’s job smoothly. I definitely agree that all the jobs require people to do more than what their title states. But the point is job description helps identify the key tasks that’s expected out of a role.
    A job description exists to assign a responsibility/accountability of a task, to a particular role. This defnitely helps bring about clarity.

    I do not believe that the solution lies in exhaustively listing out all the tasks at a department level. So, what happens when there’s a task that’s not listed in this list and hence nobody chose it as his/her task? Do we have these meetings to add to the list of tasks and then choose who would be doing it? In effect it would end up creating the same chaos and the problem that we primarily attempted to solve by eliminating the job description.

    So, in effect job description should exist and provide a “summary of the important tasks” that is expected out of a particular role. There will be a lot of tasks over and above that. All such tasks are being handled day in and day out by the team even now. Leave out such minute tasks from any list and see how they get handled. The task will definitely get done and nobody will even complain about it.


  9. Alex and Civil Servant,

    I think the rules are intended to protect employees against management abuse of authority–the danger that bosses will try to dump too many responsibilities on fewer people, in the name of flexibility. I used to work at a VA hospital where the med-surg ward supervisor asked if LPNs could start handling admissions. One LPN said “there’s a lot of tasks we have the skills to handle, but we’ve got more things to do now than we’ve got time to get done.” The boss told him he had a “bad attitude.”

    So a lot of stuff that would be common sense if the workplace was managed by workers, isn’t allowed because the bosses can’t be trusted with common sense.

  10. Alexander,

    I strongly believe that job descriptions (JD) are essential for the companies and individuals. These are my thoughts on how job descriptions can be useful.

    It is imperative for the companies to clearly articulate the activities their employees (at various levels) should execute. Having job description for each role is one of the easy ways for the company to make sure that they are headed in the

  11. Thanks for all the great input people.

    Harish: In our startup it worked great, and the list of tasks we each got were both more complete, relevant and updated than traditional job descriptions. Were they 100% complete? Nah, but they came a lot closer.

    The great advantage was of course that we made the list together and everybody chose the tasks for themselves. This meant that everybody knew their tasks and why they had those specific tasks.

    As for new people starting, I believe that the major part of learning a new job comes from watching and working with the people around you and from actually doing the job. That’s how you pick up the real content of the job – not the job description.

    If we agree that traditional job descriptions are often incomplete and outdated, then they would be a bad source for learning about your new job anyhow, even if people did read them. Which, of course, many don’t.

    Kevin: Exactly – which is why the approach I mentioned lets workers choose the tasks they like for themselves.

    Skolar: You state the case for job descriptions well, but is that really how it works in practice?

    As for recruiting: Well, since few jobs actually resemble thei job descriptions much, that’s. But we still hire a developer to develop, a sales person to sell and a manager to lead – so you know what your job will be.

  12. “Let people choose tasks”. I think this is the point I liked most. There’s a guy who hates talking to the customers because this takes time from the activities he likes (developing electronic systems). I, on the other hand, would be delighted to do so; maybe I’m not the most skilled to do so (I’m a developer myself too), but I have the will to experience this. But this is not going to happen because of our job possitions. And when management has “the last word”, there isn’t much to say for us “mortals”.

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  14. I work for a company where management (of which I was part of) resisted writing job description for 15 years, for just these reasons.

    15 months ago, New management was brought in from larger organizations and all old managers reassigned to non-management positions.

    First task: Write job descriptions for everyone. New management and new managers did (do) not know how to manage people, only how to manage faceless resources in fixed positions.

    Job descriptions are also thought to be an enabler for outsourcing as a specific position is much easier to fill by a consulting firm or external resource than replacing a person with unique skills.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  15. SPK: That’s terrible. I think your story underscores the fact that management is not about rules, regulations and paper trails – it’s more about establishing a real connection between real people.

    And thanks for the compliment – I’m really glad you like the blog.

  16. Job descriptions serve as protection from bad managers. How could you have overlooked this?

    Typically we find that an employee accepts a position with a company based upon the understanding that they will be doing x,y and z. If upon commencement of employment the bad manager starts pulling the ole switcheroo ‘we’d like to you do a,b,c and some x’ to ‘grow you into the position’ and ‘prove to us you can do the job’, I have you to tell you the job description becomes an excellent tool for HR to start action against a manager when the employee complains (usually upon exit).

    The value inherient in JD’s becomes apparent when they are viewed as a type of contract between the employee and the employer.

    Thanks – it’s been useful and interesting reading the other comments.

  17. Good point rba. Though I would argue, that if employees need that kind of protection, something in the company is fundamentally wrong. And job descriptions are at best a temporary relief.

  18. Alex,

    You’re right that the need for such protections means that there’s something fundamentally wrong in a company. Unfortunately, there’s something fundamentally wrong in most companies: a basic, structural imbalance of power. We need job descriptions for the same reason we need unions, or defense attorneys when we’re accused of crime: there’s an adversarial relationship built into wage employment in most cases. Until the various forms of state intervention are eliminated that reduce the bargaining power of labor and put employers in the dominant position, we need all the means of self-defense we can get.

  19. “Right, said Fred” (or should it be “right, Fred Said”)…. My first boss out of college had “other duties as assigned” on everybody’s job description. Although we might not normally be expected to, lets say, stack milk cartons in the form of a pyramid, if that was what was required for that day, it was what we all did.

    He also used it as a carrot/stick – if you took excessive breaks, suddenly your “other duties” included sweeping up all workstations, not just your own. But mostly, he used it to make sure his department’s responsibilities were fulfilled. BTW – he was a decent manager, and rewarded his group appropriately. He took credit for what his group did, but let everyone in and outside of his group know that it was a group accomplishment.

  20. what if you have a job description for your position and then you performed one of the tasks assigned to that position as per the job description. what if you were suspended then fired for performing what your job description entailed. Then, upon investigation, the corporation’s heads make statements that do not coincide. One agrees that the position could do this and another head states no and then they are shown the job description and then they try to be wishy washy. If the head of the corporations do not even know (trust me this affects everyone) then how could they guide the individuals working for them? Question is…was that person rightfully fired? I say no…but that the job description held by the individual was proof that he was performing within what the expectations are..if they did not want him doing something as such…then they misled this individual.

  21. If you have an archaic system and a micromanaging dinosaur for a supervisor, job descriptions are the way to go. If you are trying to produce an enjoyable environment, and the fellow employees are not self centered, getting rid of the job descriptions is the way to go.

    Updating and getting rid of “outmodded” reports and time consuming antiquated systems and software should be a semiannual exercise in good management. Unfortunatly, not all bosses are equipped to handle this, phychologically or educationally because of the “peter principle”, so we as employees are often stuck doing outmoded tasks on out moded equipment and software.


  22. I disagree, I have a close friend who most likely doing the job of someone two levels above their position title. Without a job description it is very hard for this person to advocate for themselves. Because of their race, gender and unique job function the company has effectively “boxed” this person in denying opportunity. By the way, this is a very large global company who has job descriptions for the better advocated employees!

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