Is the job description obsolete?

Here’s the first article based on Dr. Tim Baker’s new book – Performance Management for Agile Organization.

As L&D practitioners, we’re called upon to design, facilitate, and evaluate training programs that are job- or non-job specific. Since the work document we commonly refer to as a job description clear favours job-specific KPIs, we devalue non-job performance.

Attempts to redress this imbalance have been made in recent years; these attempts don’t go far enough. We need to shift from a job-focus to a performance-focus. Having an accompanying document or a set of bullet points at the bottom of the job description implies that the ‘meaty’ part of performance is the set of job tasks we refer to as KRAs.

But performance is a combination of both job- and non-job performance.

The job description – like the performance review – is a relic of the last century. Yet we still cling onto this antiquated HRM tool in the hope that it aids employee performance.  But we get frustrated with the job description, don’t we?

Instead of fiddling with the job description and asking how can we make it be more effective, we ought to be asking a better questionIs it still relevant?

We are constantly tinkering with its format and content, hoping to make it more reflective of the work people are supposed to do in the organisation. Instead of fiddling with the job description and asking how can we make it be more effective, we ought to be asking a better question: Is it still relevant?

The answer is no, the job description is not relevant; it’s past it’s used by date. It’s time to assign it to the industrial dust bin and replace it with something else. But what? What can replace the antediluvian job description?

The role description

The alternative to the job description – I believe – is the role description. Is it just another label for the same thing? Is it old wine in new bottles? No. The role description is significantly different; it reflects a shift from a focus on the job to a focus on performance. What’s more, the role description better captures work in the 21st century workplace.

The job description – as its name suggests – is based exclusively on the characteristics of a specific job. A job as we know is typically broken down into six to eight job-related tasks, functions, or Key Result Areas (KRAs). The job description continues to be defined by the technical requirements of a job.

Therefore, it neglects – or at best – gives mere lip service to key non-job competencies, such as being able to work in teams. This means the work document is incomplete and so, deficient. Organisational performance is much more than successfully completing the sum of the technical requirements in the job description.

Yet we are so dependent on the job description for most HRM practices. A more complete performance model, factoring in job and non-job dimensions, is long overdue. Why isn’t a comprehensive performance model common practice? I think the truth is that the continual concentration on the more measurable task-based job requirements is about maintaining a legally defensible performance appraisal system.

Legal or otherwise, the spotlight has been squarely on the performance of job-specific tasks for over a century. Nevertheless, non-job work has become more and more relevant to organisational performance. But non-job roles are not embedded in the job description to the same extent as the job-related tasks.

The conventional job description fails to sufficiently capture what is expected of the incumbent in their non-job roles.

The role description better encapsulates the totality of work performance. Although the job description has evolved over time, it still is pretty much centred on the job; it’s too hooked on the task-related activity of work. Put simply, the job description is too focused on the job and not enough on the individual doing the job.

Some effort has gone into addressing this imbalance of job over non-job roles. Nonetheless, the job description is still too job-centric.

Non-job roles framework

Organisational performance – and the contributing performance of employees – is more dependent on the four non-job roles I cover in this book: Performance Management for Agile Organization: Overthrowing the Eight Management Myths That Hold Businesses Back. Yet these non-job roles are not spelt out in detail in the traditional job description.

My crucial non-job framework includes:

  • Positive mental attitude and enthusiasm role;
  • Team role;
  • Skill development role; and
  • Innovation and continuous improvement role.

Non-job underperformance

If these four non-job roles aren’t being performed by most employees to a high standard, several negative consequences will inevitably emerge in the workplace.

For instance, a widespread lack of enthusiasm and the absence of a positive attitude will adversely affect job satisfaction, attraction and retention, employee engagement, morale, and so on. Or, an organisation filled with individuals who are not ‘team players’ results in communication barriers in the form of silos and cross-functional communication breakdowns.

Communication that is kaput because of no team work means that soon, the product or service quality suffers; customers become unhappy.

We need to rethink work and the work documents that define it. The role description as I define it covers five roles: the job role and the four non-job roles I’ve covered in this article. With this eclectic perspective of work performance, the role L&D professionals play is clearer and more directly related to a broader definition of what it means to perform at work.


About the author

Dr Tim Baker is an internationally recognised OD consultant and author of seven books including Performance Management for Agile Organization: Overthrowing the Eight Management Myths That Hold Businesses Back.


Read more about performance management here.



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