Why I Hate Job Descriptions, and 3 Things to Fix Them

Recently I was handed a job description for a not-for-profit volunteer role.  What hit me was the length (2 pages) and the line that said Reports to.  I know everyone reports to someone, but if I am looking for volunteer work would I look for another boss or somewhere I could have fun and be significant?  By the way, this organization is struggling to get volunteers, and when they do people are confused with their roles.  This happened because someone from outside their organization handed them a template for defining roles and they just copied it.  As we have formed organizations and worked hard to help align work through multiple levels of management and different functional areas, the job description has become a barrier to work, not something that supports it.

Here are my three frustrations in job descriptions:

  1. They lack passion:  Depending on who you listen to, the percentage of people that are disengaged or only moderately engaged in their work is somewhere between 40% and 75% of the workforce.  When we hand a traditional job description to someone it is an invitation to be mediocre and uninspired.  It is almost as if people need to work hard to get excited about their work (and luckily 20-30% of them do) because too often we don’t give them a lot to work with.
  2. They are long on detail and short on performance:  Where are the top 5 priorities in this role and how we will measure success?  Remember leadership is not how people perform when you are standing there it is about how they run the business when you walk away. 15 – 20 responsibilities with no metrics for success is not a performance focused approach to work.
  3. They don’t invite people to think about What more could I contribute?:  Seen this line before – Additional projects as assigned.  Message – As your leader I reserve the right to give you any other kind of work and you need to do it.  Wait here while I go lead and be ready to go when I get back.  (sorry for the Dilbert moment – but am I right?)  When we list 15-20 things we take away space for people to dream or choose to jump into an area of need and make a difference.  What if we just listed the additional projects you were thinking about that would help move your business forward and make this role more significant?

Three fixes:

  1. Share the significance of the job:  Instead of focusing on 4-5 sentences of General Responsibilities, create a section called Job Purpose, and use it to define why this role exists in an organization.  Not fluffy language like create traction or cultural beacon, but significant action works like owns, leads, builds, creates, or guarantees.
  2. Only list 5-7 items and each one gets a measure:    There are 4-5 things that every job does on a daily basis and there is a way to measure success.  Focus on sharing that.
  3. Include HOW work is accomplished SEPARATE from what they do.  99.9% of companies are less than 500 people, and most companies are not going to create values statements that stick to the walls.  However, every business has a culture and expectations for how people should work together.  Those are values, and need to be spelled out.  When we do that a couple of things happen.  First, we can hire the type of person we want because there are specific things we look for in people and we can tell them.  Secondly, your company will stand out in the hiring process because nobody talks about this.  NOBODY!

I publish a variety of templates to help people do the little things of managing talent that will make a big difference.  Take a look, and under Onboarding is the Role Summary and Focus form.  As always, yours to use and if you make improvements I would love to see them so I can share with others.

We inspire people when we invite them into something more significant.   Rewriting the job description gives people space to do things that matter, whatever the job.  This is not everything to managing talent well and building a great culture, but it is a start.  Go start well!

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