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Are Job Descriptions Obsolete?

By Suzanne Simpson

October 14 2019 - In a recent article from one of the leading analyst firms in the HR Talent Management space, Josh Bersin noted that in their push for simpler approaches to the talent experience, some brand-name organizations are eliminating job descriptions and job titles altogether.   

They are doing this because:

  • Keeping Job Descriptions updated and communicated is an administrative burden for HR professionals and managers
  • Job roles are changing too fast to keep up
  • Organizations are often looking to implement teams with the right combination of skills and competencies to  effectively achieve specified organizational goals

While those are valid potential issues with job descriptions, those challenges should be contrasted with the potential benefits that high-quality job descriptions can provide.

Job descriptions can help support legal requirements with respect to the rights of workers to fair and equitable compensation, selection and career opportunities. In addition to this, job descriptions play a fundamental role in communicating not only the assigned tasks and duties of a role but also the skills, competencies and know-how needed to perform that role effectively.

The challenge, then, is keeping up with fast-paced changes in the workplace so that for both employees and managers, job descriptions are a net positive.

So, let's break down those main challenges experienced by workers, managers and talent management professionals. 

Challenge #1: Job Descriptions are an Administrative Burden

Usually, job descriptions are created when an organization needs to fill its job openings and are typically prepared in single file format on a one-by-one basis. In most cases, job descriptions are designed only for this purpose then they are quickly shelved and forgotten (once the job opening has been filled).

By doing this, many organizations miss out on using their job descriptions as a tool to support employee  onboarding, growth and development.

Far too often, job descriptions are not written in a useful format or do not contain the right information to support employee development and effective workforce management.

This can lead to redundant and disjointed efforts among HR professionals as well as Learning & Development (L&D)  teams. From the viewpoint of both managers and employees, frustration can build when organizational processes do not support a seamless and satisfying career experience.

Challenge #2: Job Roles are Changing Too Fast

There's little doubt that the pace of change in the modern world of work is accelerating: according to  the Indeed Hiring Lab, the distribution of jobs in 2018 is nearly 25% different than it was just four years ago.

Now imagine how many job roles have changed since then (including your own).

If you are responsible for managing the job descriptions in your organization, constantly updating these documents  can be a nightmare. This goes double for those job descriptions that exist in standalone files (i.e. Microsoft Word or PDF)  within your organization.

When addressing day-to-day challenges or looming changes in the marketplace, managers naturally gravitate towards addressing these challenges as swiftly as possible. This leaves little to no resources (i.e. time or money) for properly writing and updating your job descriptions.

With the emergence of new HR technology, job description software and tools can help with the creation and management of your organization's job descriptions.

Challenge #3: Individual Job Descriptions are Giving Way to Team-based Approaches

We live in a world where flexibility and innovation are vital to helping companies compete and stay ahead in the marketplace. Due to this, employees entering the workforce are looking for an experience which allows them to both grow and achieve a sense of accomplishment and self-worth consistent with their core values.

Organizations are responding by using fluid teaming approaches that not only build on employee strengths (to advance the goals of the organization) but respond to fundamental employee needs for growth and development.

This means that managers and employees alike must adapt to this new culture and team-based approach towards work. At the same time, however, traditional approaches towards static individually based job descriptions are often outdated in this changing environment.

In Summary

Are job descriptions obsolete? Like many things in the talent management field, it's a matter of perspective.

My view is that they are not so much obsolete as they are misunderstood within the talent management sector.  For many, job descriptions are merely seen as a means to an immediate end (i.e. to attract candidates for vacancies).

In reality, we are seeing many organizations recognize that job description data can actually be valuable beyond the talent attraction process. They can be used to actually link duties with measurable competencies, to be used as a basis for everything from behavioral-based interview questions, to employee assessment programs, and even mobility/career path programs.

But change takes time, and quite honestly, we’re likely at a critical juncture for the future of job descriptions.

When considering the question of whether job descriptions are obsolete in your own organization, I'll leave you with two questions to think on.

1. Do you see value in using job description data beyond the hiring process, to inform and feed into other parts of your talent management programs?

2. Going forward, will job descriptions:

   A. Help your HR teams by improving the connectivity of your talent management programs  as a whole

   B. Hinder your HR teams them by weighing them down because we don't have good processes and tools in place? 

About the author

Suzanne Simpson

Suzanne Simpson, Founder and CEO, Human Resource Systems Group (HRSG)

Suzanne founded Human Resources Systems Group (HRSG) in 1989 to help clients implement a systems approach to managing talent. As the leader of HRSG, Suzanne works tirelessly to build an organization that encourages innovation and excellence. She is recognized as a thought leader in the field of competency-based management and is a sought-after speaker internationally. In 2012, she was awarded the Business Woman of the Year Award by the Women’s Business Network and in 2018, she won both the Sara Kirke Award & an Enterprising Women of the Year Award.

Suzanne has had an interest in horses from a young age and enjoys working with and sponsoring young riders to help them hone their skills. If Suzanne hadn't started HRSG, she would be devoting more time to her love of horses and her work with the Cambrian Equestrian Centre.


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