Job Descriptions: Formality or Source of Clarity, Inspiration and Performance?
While most organizations do have Job Descriptions, these documents are often created for the sake of some formal obligation (like ISO certification) and filed away. However, depending on how these documents are crafted and used, Job Descriptions can be turned from a mere formality into an organizational asset--a source of clarity and inspiration for higher performance.
Anatomy of a Job Description
To begin with, a Job Description (JD) is simply an answer to the following three questions:
Why this job matters? I am yet to see a JD where this piece is included, and yet, it is pivotal to motivating employees for sustaining high performance.
What’s expected from the employee? More specifically, it includes four key elements: Role, responsibilities, key results and behaviors expected. In my experience, while many organizations do include the first two elements, the third and fourth one—key results and behaviors—are often the missing parts.
How to deliver the expected performance? This is where come the required skills, knowledge and training required to perform at the level best.
Crafting an effective Job Description
Crafting a clear, inspiring and performance-oriented JD takes understanding of the overall organizational structure, linkages between different departments and roles, and the cascade of results required from top to bottom. All of this requires much study, thinking and time, but it is worth the effort.
To craft an effective JD for a particular job, start by asking why, what and how.
A growing body of research shows that people crave for meaning in their jobs and have an innate need to make an impact in whatever work they do. In other words, if we can answer “why does a particular job matter in the context of its impact on others (customers—internal or external), it becomes the “Job Purpose.”
Job purpose should be written not just factually, but in an inspiring way. One proven way is to connect a person’s contribution to external customers. Adam Grant  at Wharton, points to a growing body of research supporting this idea, which he calls “outsourcing inspiration.” Essentially, the idea is simple but profound: When employees realize how their work impacts the end-users, they tend to work harder, smarter and more productively.
For example, consider Hygiene Manager’s job, a kind of unsung role in a food service or catering business. In majority of the cases, this job is usually defined as “ensuring adherence to hygiene and cleanliness standards,” which is typically an inward looking description without any purpose. Now, what if the JD of Hygiene Managers also includes the following: “Thanks to what you do in this role, all our customers enjoy 100% safe food and keep healthy”? How inspiring is that!
Every job has some impact—directly or indirectly—and including this element in a JD can fuel an employee’s motivation.
WHAT: Role, responsibilities, outcomes and behaviors
Most JDs confuse between role and responsibilities. Role is expectations of key stakeholders, typically defined by a position or a small description, while the responsibilities are actions which must be taken to meet the role expectations. For example, going back to Hygiene Manager, the two roles generally are: custodian of hygiene & cleanliness, and a monitor of various food safety related processes as they relate to hygiene jobs. Illustrative responsibilities for the first role could be: ensuring sufficient availability of manpower and materials to various hygiene tasks, and drawing up & implementing cleaning schedules while for the second role, recording process parameters related to cleaning and rigorous training of own staff to meet food safety requirements etc.
Role and responsibilities should then get linked to specific outcomes. An effective JD should also clearly spell out a few, probably three or four, key results or outcomes that can be objectively measured. It helps to bring in “focus” and provides a sense of specific direction.
For example, in a catering setup, one of the key responsibilities of an Executive Chef (Head of food production) is to innovate—come up with new dishes, experiment with different ingredients and displays, etc. This expectation is incomplete without linking it to a specific and measurable outcome. So, innovation can be geared towards a cost reduction objective or towards improving product pricing or to increase customer satisfaction score or a combination of these outcomes.
Job Descriptions also provide a unique opportunity to build desired behaviors according to the values and culture of an organization. Organization can express its values and culture through the behaviors it desires, urging employees to act in a specific and consistent manner. Coming back to the JD of Hygiene Manager, one of the desirable behaviors is “Attention to Details.” And this behavior can be further fleshed out as follows:
“By meticulously adhering to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), specifications and standards in your daily work, you contribute directly towards achieving high quality.”
HOW: Skills, knowledge & training
Every job requires certain skills and knowledge, and it is immensely powerful to list them in a JD. That way, an employee is not caught off guard and is likely to make conscious efforts to acquire them. Organization, on the other hand, has a clear roadmap of where the employees should reach in terms of skills and knowledge to be able to deliver the required results—both in short-term and long-term.
For example, in most industries the production is getting automated. So clearly enunciating the specific IT skills required, preferably within a specific time frame, can enable employees to see the logic of acquiring those skills. And it also makes training programs more relevant. This idea is especially useful in knowledge-oriented industries where skills and knowledge requirements change fast and forecasting them needs special attention.
Finally, JDs should be living documents, not something filed away and frozen: It should be updated regularly as the industry, organization, culture and employees evolve. Ideally, a JD should be revisited every six months. And to maximize its impact, a JD should be discussed between the concerned employee and immediate superior, building a positive conversation around each of the three key elements (why, what, how).
Are Job Descriptions a formality or a performance-enhancing asset? The choice lies with the leadership of an organization.
 Adam Grant; How customers can rally your troops; HBR, June 2011