At the heart of the recruitment process lies the general concept that a company needs to hire people to complete certain tasks or group of tasks within the organization. The description of the various responsibilities of each position can usually be found within the "job description" or "job specification" that is typically put together by business owners or managers.
Recruiters and personnel managers rely on clear and concise job descriptions to streamline the application and interviewing process and to judge work performance after a person has been hired. Job descriptions and specifications usually include known duties and responsibilities, required levels of education and work experience, salary and benefits provided to employees in exchange for their labor, and information regarding the work environment. Job descriptions also may include helpful details addressing other work-related issues, such as the position's travel obligations, normal work schedule, physical location where duties of position will be carried out, union status, supervisory relationships, bonuses, and any other information directly pertinent to the execution of any and all responsibilities associated with the job. In essence, wrote Philip B. Crosby in The Eternally Successful Organization, effective job descriptions let employees know what is expected of them: "If people are going to perform their assigned task, then they obviously have to know what it is, how to do it, and how to measure the results. Either someone has to explain it all to them or they have to figure it out themselves."
Researchers, executives, and small business owners all agree that job descriptions—if studied and created carefully and used appropriately as a productivity measurement tool—can help organizations, especially in the early stages of a worker's employment. "Job descriptions are potentially one of the most powerful tools available to help managers improve employee performance and productivity," stated Philip C. Grant in Supervision. "They have great utility for every phase of human resource administration. From designing jobs and reward systems, through staffing and training to performance evaluation and control, the job description is literally indispensible if the human resource is to be managed properly. A recent analysis of job description usage uncovered 132 major management uses for job descriptions. Probably no other management tool has such potential for usage in such a wide variety of significant ways."
The level of detail utilized in the creation of job descriptions and the monitoring of employee execution of the duties articulated therein can vary tremendously from organization to organization. A multinational corporation, for example, may have job descriptions that are far more formal and detailed in their contents than those used by a small local business. Companies in different industries tend to approach the issue of job descriptions differently as well (tool and die manufacturers, for example, are more likely to institute job definitions for various positions than are fishing charter services). And, finally, some business owners and management teams simply institute and nourish different company cultures that may have dramatically different conceptions of job descriptions and their utility. For example, companies that operate in a flexible working environment in which employee roles are fluid and expectations change may find the quest to define various job parameters to be a daunting one. "The essence of the problem is how clear directives, where these are needed, can be reconciled with flexible work systems," wrote Belbin, Watson, and West in People Management. "One approach to this is for a manager to set up a job as a working hypothesis on how the work should be carried out. Added to this is a system of continuing feedback to check whether the job is proceeding as expected. Thus, the boundaries and content of the job can be defined through an interactive communication process."
But researchers note that on the whole, larger organizations will often, out of either real or imagined necessity, institute more formalized job description/monitoring procedures. Still, in many companies with detailed plans in this area, "job descriptions are usually thought of as something for the lower-level people in an organization," said Crosby. "Higher-ups have 'mission statements' which sound good but are hard to measure. So we have all these people doing things which we may or may not have agreed to do. It doesn't take very long before a great deal of the organization's work has very little to do with the main objectives of the business." He and other business consultants contend that job descriptions can help business enterprises maintain their focus at all job levels, including top management and ownership positions. Owners of family establishments or very small business enterprises, meanwhile, may simply decide that formal job descriptions are unnecessary. Ultimately, each small business owner needs to consider the unique aspects of his or her own business situation when deciding how to define and monitor the responsibilities of each work position.
One major advantage associated with formal job descriptions is that it provides business owners and supervisors with a useful tool of performance measurement. "Fundamentally, productivity means producing—getting the work done with the most advantageous results using the best possible methods," observed Levesque. "Doing work and getting results is a measurement of what we do, while the methods used to carry out work is a measurement of how we conduct ourselves and our work transactions. Therefore, each job is represented by what is within the defined scope of the position (job description) in relation to others we work with, and how each job function is carried out…. What does good communications of performance criteria constitute? At the very minimum it means giving employees copies of their job description and appraisal form, then explaining what kinds of job functions are evaluated against performance dimensions and standards." In addition, job descriptions are often used to provide potential job applicants with a sense of the various obligations and rewards of that position, to help businesses develop salary grades, and to help maintain a recognizable organizational structure.
But while the benefits that accrue to businesses that take the time and effort to devise and update job descriptions are numerous, consultants note that firms still need to be cognizant of the potential for legal difficulties therein. "I'd be willing to wager that there's a potential legal nightmare lurking in your office. It's probably hiding where you would least expect it, tucked away in a file folder or notebook you haven't opened in months or years. It's called a job description," said Allen Halcrow in Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management. "In today's litigious climate …those seemingly innocuous documents can come back to haunt you on issues such as overtime, performance reviews, and terminations." According to Halcrow, "the fundamental problem is that the job descriptions you may consider merely guidelines about work tasks and expectations may be seen as much more definitive by attorneys and the courts."
PERFORMANCE REVIEWS Annual or semi-annual performance reviews are fixtures in most establishments, and they are useful to both employee and employer for many reasons. But employers should know that they can also run into trouble here if they give an employee poor marks for their work on tasks that are not delineated in their official job description. "You're at legal risk if you hold employees responsible for work that has not been defined in writing," Halcrow flatly stated. He noted that this problem is most likely to crop up in situations where a reorganization or attrition has prompted a reallocation of responsibilities within the organization. Of course, bestowing praise on an individual who takes on responsibilities not mentioned within his or her job description is unlikely to have unwanted repercussions. "The key," said Halcrow, "is to be careful not to tie negative outcomes (such as discipline or denial of a raise) to duties outside the job description" or to unduly focus on those duties at the expense of those responsibilities that are specifically mentioned.
OVERTIME Practically all employers are aware of the differences in classifying employees as exempt or non-exempt in the area of overtime compensation. But Halcrow noted that many employers are not aware that overtime liability can be linked to an employee's duties as they are described in his or her job description, not according to what tasks the employee actually performs: "For example, suppose you decide that one of your supervisors should be moved to a larger office, or to one closer to the production department. If the employee comes in over the weekend to pack or move boxes, you may be liable for overtime—even if the employee is exempt—because packing and moving are not part of the employee's usual job activities.…This principle applies to any tasks not normally performed by the employee, or to tasks that are not directly related to his or her normal job duties [such as going to the post office or addressing envelopes]. The important issue to consider isn't whether the activity is a one-time event, but whether the task relates to the employee's usual job duties."
EMPLOYEE DISMISSALS Small business owners that decide to terminate an employee for poor performance have to make sure that they are doing so because of their dissatisfaction with the targeted employee's work on tasks that are discussed in the job description.
Job descriptions can be valuable business resources when used correctly. But many companies do not take full advantage of these documents, either because they are ignorant of their possibilities or because of company-wide perceptions that they are of limited use. Grant noted several factors that can limit the effectiveness of these documents:
Entrepreneurs and managers, then, need to attend to all of these potential pitfalls when creating job descriptions for their workforce. In addition, human resource management experts hasten to point out that job descriptions are only effective if they are subject to continuous review and revision.
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Belbin, Meredith, Barrie Watson, and Cindy West. "True Colours." People Management. March 6, 1997.
Crosby, Philip B. The Eternally Successful Corporation: The Art of Corporate Wellness. New York: New American Library, 1990.
Degner, Jim. "Writing Job Descriptions that Work." Credit Union Executive. November-December 1995.
Dorf, Paul, and Ethel P. Flanders. "Classify Jobs Properly to Avoid Overtime Trap." HRMagazine. April 1994.
Grant, Philip C. "Why Job Descriptions are Not Used Any-more." Supervision. April 1998.
Halcrow, Allan. "Hidden Traps in Job Descriptions." Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management. December 1, 1992.
Levesque, Joseph D. The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
"Reality Doesn't Have a Job Description." Workforce. December 1999.
Wanous, John Parker. Organizational Entry: Recruitment, Selection, Orientation and Socialization of Newcomers. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1992.