HR Magazine, August 2000: The Demise of Job Descriptions

By Sharon Leonard Aug 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, August 2000

Vol. 45, No. 8

Future Focus : Emerging Issues

Cornell University professors Patrick Wright and Lee Dyer have been conducting a study on how technology will change the human resource profession. Preliminary findings show that key words for the profession in the future will be "better," "faster" and "smarter." Tomorrow, the profession will require, among other things, faster and more effective training delivery and systems, the ability to effectively manage corporate change and more effective use of technology in the recruitment and retention of workers.

One of the first institutional fixtures of the profession to fall victim to technology may well be the job description, at least according to some of the COOs and HR executives interviewed for the study. Rapid corporate change, due to the influence of technology, flattening hierarchies and the lack of qualified workers, will not only make job descriptions obsolete before they are written, but may be a roadblock for HR professionals trying to orchestrate change within their organizations. Executives in some of the study’s interviews noted that job descriptions are destined to go because organizations simply do not have the time to maintain them.

The Herman Group, authors of a weekly electronic newsletter called Trend Alert, agree. They note that in the workplace of today—and tomorrow—flexibility in job roles is more important than ever.

Traditional job descriptions, painstakingly written to address legal issues and to clearly outline what is expected of an employee, lack the flexibility needed in today’s workplace. As noted in the newsletter: "Job descriptions, although they include the ubiquitous phrase, ‘and all other duties as assigned,’ are still relatively rigid and limiting."

The need for many organizations to change quickly to maintain a competitive edge as well as a dearth of qualified workers means that employers may not need a technical specialist as much as a "jack of all trades," someone who can take on multiple and diverse assignments simultaneously or who can float within the corporation on special assignments.

Employees also may crave the flexibility that market forces are foisting upon employers but for a different reason. Many employees enjoy the stimulation of learning new skills and taking on different assignments. They also believe that diversifying their skills can only boost their career development paths.

Still, job descriptions help address union concerns and provide guidance to those employees uncomfortable with "and other duties as assigned." Job descriptions also help determine compensation levels and provide guidelines for legal concerns. If they become obsolete, what, if anything, will take their place?

The Herman Group envisions "role descriptions." These are broad statements that will confirm that all employees are there to help meet an organization’s goals and to earn a profit. Workers, they say, will be expected to pitch in wherever they are needed, to learn a wider set of skills and to "do whatever it takes to serve customers—both internal and external." The Herman Group predicts that there will be resistance, particularly from labor groups, but that eventually, job descriptions will go the way of the dinosaur.

If true, HR professionals may want to start evaluating their organization’s job descriptions. Are they failing to keep pace with corporate goals? Are they outdated before they are filed? Is the catch-all phrase "and other duties as assigned" taking on more significance with each update? If so, the executives in the Cornell study and the Herman Group may be on to something.

Sharon Leonard is manager of workplace trends and forecasting at SHRM.

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