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Managing Principals by Julia KramerA Prescription for Descriptions

Job description penmanship is a skill best served chilled. While you may feel ill writing it, you’ll be fostering your firm’s good health.

If you’re ever in an evil mood, say to a manager "your staff needs job descriptions" and, from a safe distance, watch what happens. The usual responses run the gamut from contempt to abject terror. Sometimes a manager will gratuitously rant and rave just to make sure you’ve gotten the message.

All kidding aside, I’ve never experienced a positive management response to job descriptions (and, for the record, I’ve never mentioned those inflammatory words just for sport either). Conversely, when I mention "job descriptions" to an employee, he or she usually responds "I sure wish I had one."

Why do managers consider job descriptions a bitter pill to swallow? Why do they reject a valuable management tool when staff is clamoring for their jobs to be accurately recorded? I think the answer lies both in the effort required to document a job and the occasional negative effect of delineating an employee’s realm of responsibility.

As an advocate of job descriptions, I’ll provide a little sugar to help the medicine go down—an (almost) painless prescription for creating job descriptions and effective ways to use them.

Let the employee draft the job description. The typical employee wants a job description, knows what he does every day better than his manager, and doesn’t mind investing a bit of sweat equity to get it all down on paper. Given, the employee may be doing one job while the manager assumes he’s doing another, but it’s critical for both to understand any discrepancies.

Start an employee on the right track by asking for a bulleted list of job content such as "identifies potential new clients through market research and competitive data analysis." You do not want a list of job qualifications, such as "requires a college degree." Who cares if an individual has a random bachelor’s degree if she has proven to be a successful sales professional? Define job content as tasks that are performed on a regular basis and consume a substantial amount of an employee’s time.

Once the employee submits a working draft (emphasis on draft), the manager eyeballs it for accuracy. Smart managers note the discrepancies between what the employee should be doing and what the employee is doing and approach the issue in a positive manner. It’s entirely feasible that the employee is doing the job the best way possible given the available resources, support and direction.

Finalize the description together. It’s a simple matter of communication. Sit down with the employee and review each major job responsibility (typically there will be five to seven), identify disconnects and invite the employee, as an equal participant, to join in a discussion to finalize the description. Then give it to your HR person to provide the job qualifications (education, experience, skills and abilities) and ADA (Americans with Disability Act) related requirements.

One caveat: If the job is a new job, obviously there won’t be an employee in the position to write the first draft. Don’t start from scratch. Ask HR for a sample job description (available through SHRM, The Council and reputable Internet sources) and then customize it to fit your particular organization.

Use it regularly for best results. Descriptions thatremain untouched lose their viability. They need to be updated as positions naturally evolve and change due to new business directions. If kept current, they are must-haves when writing a job ad, preparing to interview a job candidate, matching a job for a competitive salary analysis, rewarding above-and-beyond effort, checking for duplication of effort across an organization, and ensuring that everyone knows what they are supposed to be focusing on and accomplishing.

Avoid description abuse. Clearly communicate that a job description is not a contract or even a complete listing of every task an employee is expected to perform. It is simply a working document modified at the discretion of management. We’ve all heard the malignant phrase: "that’s not in my job description." Minimize that mindset by adding a final task that reads: "Performs ad hoc duties as required to accomplish relevant business goals and objectives." If an employee objects to the phrase, either they are new to business (they will learn), are concerned about being taken advantage of (you can reassure them by words and actions), or are not willing to pitch in when needed (they may not be right for your organization).

Finally, give employees ample opportunity to read any job description on file. Keep a job description binder at the front desk for easy access. This not only educates the staff on the different tasks being performed around them, but shows them the potential growth and career opportunities within the firm.

For all those description-resistant managers out there, I say, "take a chill pill." Job descriptions developed according to a sound prescription cure a variety of work-related ills. Pinch your nose if you have to. The taste of this medicine is far less unpleasant than the consequences of doing nothing.

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer.
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