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HR Magazine, January 2001: Refocusing Job Descriptions

Some employers are changing or replacing formal job descriptions in an attempt to focus on the competencies that don't change, rather than skills that do.

And other duties as assigned.” Those can be five sweet words to harried HR departments too busy to keep job descriptions up to date. But the familiar catchall also can be a trap, lulling HR and supervisors into neglecting job descriptions. And neglect might seem easier than wrestling descriptions into shape in these days when volatile markets, new technologies and staff shortages can put HR on a nonstop merry-go-round of description changes.

To address these issues, some employers are refocusing job descriptions to make them more realistic and easier to update.

Some companies still use job descriptions that call for narrow matches between specific skills and required tasks. But others have shifted from basing descriptions on skills to basing them on the role the position plays. Some employers also use performance goals to augment role descriptions—creating descriptions that those employers say are as flexible as each project’s new demands but still can withstand legal challenges.

Blueprints for Performance

Traditional job descriptions range from outlines that merely cover generalities to finely tuned blueprints that detail specific duties and how employees will perform them, the exact percentage of time employees will spend on each task, and what equipment they will use. Many descriptions also contain educational requirements, mandatory skills and years of experience that dictate pay levels and promotion possibilities.

Altering descriptions can draw employees’ skepticism. “Employees can feel that ‘This is a management tactic to get me to do more work without paying me for it,’ or that their job will be difficult to define,” says Rick Powers, SPHR, vice president of HR with Nextview Tech.nologies in Cary, N.C. “Some employees will never be satisfied without that three-page description.”

Descriptions do have plenty of uses. “Job descriptions are needed for hiring and performance reviews, to determine an employee’s ability to do a job and to define working conditions for regulatory requirements like the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” says Maria Fisher-Proulx, principal of Future Directives LLC, an HR consulting firm in Cheshire, Conn.

Job descriptions also can give clear career guidance to employees, according to Jean Rall, chief operating officer of New York-based IHS Help Desk, a division of Leveraged Technology that assists industries in using computers as business tools.

Rall says that job descriptions may not be necessary in a very small company where job functions are shared among a team. “At one time, that description fit our company,” says Rall.

At first, IHS Help Desk found that giving employees verbal job descriptions when they were hired worked well enough. “There was a feeling that each of our clients would require something different, so why bother writing job descriptions?” Rall says.

“Then we started hearing employees say during exit interviews, ‘I got hired to do this and I do it well, but you haven’t provided me with any vision about what I’m doing next,’” Rall continues. “Employees didn’t see a professional identity or career path and we couldn’t manage employee expectations.” Rall attributes an increased turnover to these and other problems and says the new job descriptions are helping IHS Help Desk hang onto more employees.

Rall believes that job descriptions provide clear expectations and responsibilities and give employees a vision of the opportunities available. “We don’t set these structures up to restrain people. Job descriptions help develop careers,” Rall says. “Supervisors need to know the differences between entry level and intermediate, and what the employee needs to do to move up; and employees can be prepared for other options that come along.”

Employers that have used job descriptions for years agree that descriptions help with employee expectations and management planning but add that employers need options too. One option is moving away from skills-based descriptions and toward “job roles,” focused on broader abilities, that are easier to alter as technologies and customer needs change.

Moving from Skills to Roles

Job descriptions won’t do much to help develop employees’ careers if the descriptions no longer reflect their true duties, notes Jeff Standridge, organizational development leader for Acxiom Corp. in Little Rock, Ark.

When Standridge arrived, the technology company was using a form of job description called skill blocks. Skill blocks delineated various levels through which employees could move for advancement and listed the skills employees were required to have at each level.

Under the skill block method, employees who wanted to advance from one level of a job to a higher level found that they had to document skills that were irrelevant to what they actually did, or were obsolete in their rapidly changing environment. A common complaint from employees was, “My job has evolved faster than my skill blocks,” says Standridge. Information technology changes so fast that maintaining skill block descriptions was difficult.

The company moved to replace skill blocks with job roles and competency models. “Roles and competency models don’t become outdated so quickly,” says Standridge. “They describe what you do functionally. They don’t describe who you are or where you sit within the org chart.

“Most companies cluster a group of related skills together and call it a competency,” he adds. A communications competency, for example, would probably include common skills like writing, speaking and making presentations.

“To change those [communications competencies] to behavior statements, upon which our job roles and competency models are based, you might say the person actively listens, builds trust and adapts his style and tactics to fit the audience,” Standridge says. “These behaviors won’t change, even as the means of executing them evolve with technology.”

To define job roles, the company examined the successful behaviors of its good performers. Standridge says, “When we asked a panel, ‘What makes this employee a successful software developer,’ the first answer would be, ‘Well, he knows Java and C++, etc.’” Recognizing that these languages could become obsolete, he probed to discover what really made the developer successful in that position.

“When we asked, ‘If Java becomes obsolete in five years, will this person no longer be successful?’ The panel responded ‘Oh, no, he’ll update his skills and be great in the new language,’” says Standridge. The employee’s strength was not just in his specific skills but in his ability to learn. “What we did was move beyond skills to behaviorally anchored competencies like self-directed learning,” Standridge says.

The company now uses very brief descriptions, along with a few statements that describe overall responsibilities, to nail down the essence of a role.

Specific expectations set by individual managers define the skills, such as knowledge of certain computer languages, that employees need in each position. Standridge emphasizes that those skills are not permanent parts of the job role.

Giving Performance More Weight

Powers is another user of job roles, which he says have greater longevity and flexibility than descriptions. That flexibility also can reduce the tendency for employees to use the old “It’s not in my job description” rationale to avoid work that seems to fall outside a formal description.

Powers adds that where an employer is not using traditional, skills-based job descriptions, a strong, frequently updated performance management system is critical in defining the specifics of an employee’s work.

At Nextview, says Powers, “Seven brief sentences fit every manager in the company,” and they typically are pithy and generic: “Supervises at least two employees. … Implements policies, procedures, controls and services. … Responsible for adherence to department budget guidelines.”

What differentiates one type of manager from another are the specific functions required by each person’s performance plan. “Each manager will need different skills to meet their specific goals,” Powers says, noting that employees are measured against their performance in meeting goals, rather than whether or how they execute particular tasks.

Powers likens performance plans to “living” job descriptions. “The key is to have an accurate statement of what employees do so they can be fairly and equitably compensated, versus a job description that is perhaps revised once a year—and will be slow to reflect the changes that inevitably occur in jobs,” he says.

In organizations reluctant to go as far as Nextview and Acxiom, the performance review process still can help management and HR keep existing job descriptions focused, Fisher-Proulx adds. Supervisors should review job duties and the description’s accuracy during performance reviews, to ensure that performance goals and descriptions mesh, she says.

Cautions About Change

Powers has a caution for companies considering changes to their job description structure: If your workplace is unionized, remember to consult with labor lawyers and the union before making any moves.

Many bargaining units have contracts specifying that employees have a tenure track and learn jobs through apprenticeship, Powers says. In such cases, the union and management need clearly defined terms and descriptions.

Unions typically direct their job-description efforts toward setting defined boundaries for positions, usually wanting to define the work that employees can perform within specific job classifications, adds Dale Deitchler, a partner with the law firm Rider, Bennett, Egan and Arundel in Minneapolis. Doing without job descriptions in a union environment, or not updating them, can give the union ammunition for contract violation grievances if, for example, supervisors appear to be doing work that belongs to bargaining unit members, he says.

Employers also must be careful about changes if jobs require certifications or other restrictions. For example, many medical jobs require licenses and some financial jobs require certain training and certifications. Descriptions, roles or other variations need to include these restrictions.

Consider Legal Implications

Deitchler also advises employers who are interested in what he calls “free form or generic job descriptions” to weigh the benefits they offer against some potential legal risks.

“Newer, quicker-growing start-up companies in rapidly changing industries simply may not be able to accurately describe job expectations—or expectations that are meaningful for more than a few days,” says Deitchler. “Almost by necessity, job descriptions within those types of organizations need to be worded loosely.”

But any employer considering alterations to job descriptions, and especially an employer doing without any written descriptions, also should remember that descriptions have legal uses, Deitchler says.

“A job description can be a tool to discourage a disgruntled employee from later legally challenging an employer’s actions,” says Deitchler. “If an employee has an objective standard against which to measure his or her performance, and knows that the standard has not been achieved, he or she may be less likely to file suit.”

Deitchler suggests job descriptions can be a strong defense against many kinds of claims, including those involving discrimination, negligence, retaliation and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Employers can use job descriptions to identify and establish the essential functions of the job, functions that become key in determining if a disabled employee can do the job.

In defending against discrimination claims, Deitchler says, an employer trying to show that an employee violated performance or behavior standards might need a written description to identify those standards.

And Equal Pay Act cases may be hard to defend if there are no descriptions that identify specific skill, effort and responsibility levels.

Deitchler also describes cases in which employers defended themselves against employees’ negligence claims by citing job descriptions. “A hospital defended itself in a case where psychologists [at the hospital] were assaulted by contending that the psychologists knew of the risk and danger of an assault because their written job description identified that risk,” he says.

Duties Trump Descriptions

While some form of written description can be a help if the employer faces a challenge, John Fraser, deputy administrator for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in Washington, D.C., emphasizes that investigators always will zero in on the work actually performed.

“We don’t frown on the expression ‘Other duties as assigned’ nor do we require job descriptions,” Fraser says. “With respect to the laws that we administer, job descriptions per se aren’t relevant, and ‘Other duties as assigned’ is not a refuge. It’s what people do, not what’s on paper” that matters.

Powers says experience has taught him that his system of job roles and living performance plans can stand up to legal challenges. The Wage and Hour Division investigated a Nextview employee’s complaint about misclassification and, Powers says, the job roles model prevailed.

The employee claimed he should have been classified as nonexempt and paid overtime, Powers says. The investigator asked for job description​s but Powers explained that he didn’t have any. “I told her that I used role statements and then fleshed those out with specifics for each performance plan.”

After the investigator asked for the department’s performance plans, Powers was gratified when she told him that he had made life easier for her. “The investigator said that instead of looking at job descriptions—which didn’t show what people do—I gave her performance plans that showed exactly what people did.” He successfully defended Nextview against the complaint.

Carla Joinson, a contributing editor to HR Magazine, is based in San Antonio. She specializes in writing about business and management issues.


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