Are Job Descriptions Bad For Business?

Job Descriptions can be useful tools during the hiring process. They help employers specify their needs and they help potential employees identify positions that they are qualified for. Without a clear description of the skills needed to do a job and the responsibilities associated with that job it would be nearly impossible to hire a qualified accountant, engineer, programmer, or sales associate. So what could possibly be bad about a Job Description?

Job Descriptions limit people. They place barriers on the potential aspirations and actions an employee may take. Job Descriptions play a crucial role in the “not my job” syndrome, where employees don’t really care what happens around them as long as they don’t get blamed. Employers are often at fault for this when they push employees to be so focused on their assigned tasks and following their instructions that the employees feel the only path to success is blind obedience and adherence to existing protocols.

I am not pushing for the abolition of Job Descriptions. I am pushing for employers and employees to reflect on how the use of Job Descriptions may be limiting the actions employees take on the job, the ambitions of employees for learning and advancement, and the prosperity of the company. Google prospers in part because of its 20% time policy that gives employees 20% of their time to pursue projects that are outside of the job description. Employees learn new skills, develop new products and services, and interact with groups throughout the company in new ways that stimulate innovation and invention through the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Google’s management can’t always predict what the employees wil come up with but everyone in the organization has made exploration and invention a part of their job and that means that employees can drive the company in new, unexpected, and profitable directions.

At Infinite Web Design we also have found that giving employees freedom and encouragement to explore can yield dividends. Ben was hired here primarily to do sales and business process work, but he has since started teaching himself more about computer networks and programming in an effort to expand his abilities. We’ve given him books and advice in an effort to encourage his learning. None of that is in his job description. It’s not why we hired him. But I am really proud of him for making the effort to go beyond what we ask of him, and his increased knowledge and understanding of programming and networks helps in in his normal job duties.

So how might this apply in other businesses? In a factory it can be something as simple as asking the employees how to improve efficiency on the line. A worked at an auto plant once pointed out to some efficiency experts how for years employees had had to walk across the factory (which could be up to 1/2 a mile) simply to get a single tool or part that they needed for more infrequent tasks. This could hold up the entire line. A simple change to keeping all tools and spare parts at each work station saved hours of delays and tens of thousands of dollars. Changing the distribution of tools was not his job, but he looked past that and found a way to make everyone more productive.

A clerk in a business we worked with used to tally all the money that came in by hand on lined paper and then added it up on an old calculator with a paper roll on it. She would print out the calculations and staple it to the tally sheet. After we talked with her and just asked her about how she did her job and how it might be made easier she got to thinking. She went ahead on her own and started using Excel to do the work, saving herself time and effort and making it easier to share the information with others in the company. With minimal prodding she broke out of her Job Description and explored a new way of doing things.

Changing a corporate culture is never easy. It’s even harder when the part you’re trying to change is a resistance to innovative thinking and adaptability. It’s really kind of ironic. But it is true that those who fail to learn, grow, and adapt are likely to fail over time, whether they are individual employees or corporations. A company cannot manage all innovation and ingenuity from above, it is most often at an individual and small group level where great ideas are hatched and executed.

Kevin Hall
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