What’s Wrong With the Job Description, Anyway?

By Dr. Tim Baker

Before we start analyzing performance, which is directly related to the next two conversations and indirectly related to the final two, it is important that we understand what we mean by the term “performance.”

I think there has been — and continues to be — too much focus on a person’s job and not enough on the role the person is expected to play in the organization.

In other words, we tend to confine our performance discussions to the job description (JD) and I think this is a mistake.

I think a good starting point with regard to understanding work performance is to think about the roles employees are expected to play in organizations rather than the job they have.

What is the difference?

A job is a clearly defined set of tasks that have some inter-relationship; an employee is expected to carry out these tasks competently — at least — in exchange for remuneration and other benefits.

A role, on the other hand, is a broader concept than a job. It encompasses job and non-job functions. In terms of performance, most organizations are more concerned with the job an employee does than with the role they play within the organization.

As a consequence of this job focus, managers and employees evaluate their contribution to the organization on the basis of completing the literal requirements of their JD. Under these circumstances, employees, with some justification, typically think and sometimes say: “If it’s not on my JD, I’m not required to do it.

Managers attempt to carve out employees’ responsibilities in a JD. This is done as a way of maintaining control and as a means of monitoring staff performance. The JD is an artefact of the 20th century. Yet many organizations are still too reliant on this piece of paper.

I devote a full chapter on moving from a job focus to a performance focus in my book, The 8 Values of Highly Productive Companies: Creating Wealth from a New Employment Relationship.

Employee work is two-dimensional

The truth is this: Employee performance in the modern work setting cannot be completely captured in a JD. If you doubt this, then why is it that most JDs have a “statement of other duties disclaimer” at the end saying something along the lines of  “and any other duties deemed necessary by your supervisor’?

This is because the work employees do is two-dimensional. In other words, they have job and non-job requirements.

Performance therefore ought to be considered in both dimensions. Job performance is concerned with those aspects of the job that can be documented in a JD. In other words, they would include a breakdown of the various tasks the person is expected to perform in that particular job.

Non-job performance, on the other hand, is more to do with the role that person is expected to play within their work environment.

For instance, most people would expect employees to show initiative when required to do so, be a team player, and continually improve their skills set. These aspects are more related to the employee’s organizational or non-job role. They are not usually mentioned directly in the conventional JD, despite being considered critical to overall performance.

Non-job roles are becoming important

From an organizational perspective, the non-job role employees play is now almost as important to a company’s performance as their job performance. It is now widely recognized that roles such as displaying teamwork, contributing to improving the way the workplace functions, and developing one’s work skills have an important impact on organizational performance.

These three attributes are non-job specific and, as such, rarely — if ever — explicitly refer to an employee’s JD. Nevertheless, every employee is implicitly expected to work in teams, be enterprising, and grow and develop their capabilities. In sum, employee work performance goes beyond the narrow confines of a JD and includes these — and other — non-job-specific behaviors.

Managers ought to more actively acknowledge and recognize the significance and value of specific non-job behaviors. If they did so, the value of work would not only be in what is done, but also in how people go about it. More specifically, being innovative when needed, being a team player, and improving their skills are part of the modern employee’s organizational repertoire.

Credit by the manager and willingness from the employee to contribute in ways beyond the scope of the JD expands the focus from a job focus to a performance focus.

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Everyone benefits from a performance-based organizational culture. One of the drivers for employee success today is the concept of adding value to a job.

From length of service to adding value

In the past, employees were rewarded for their length of service. Those that stuck with the same company for a relatively long time were entitled to certain privileges. Now companies want employees who can willingly add value in their role within their work setting regardless of their tenure.

This means that employees who contribute in constructive ways outside the scope of their JD are potentially more valuable than those who stick stringently to the letter of their JD. However, the issue of what exactly constitutes work performance has been widely debated by management experts. It is only relatively recently that non-job behaviors have been universally considered to be critical to overall organizational performance.

Despite all this focus on performance, most performance management systems are still substandard. These systems more often than not ignore — or only pay lip service to — aspects of work performance that are not specifically job related. The best illustration of this is the conventional building block for performance systems: the JD.

As I have mentioned, rarely are non-job-related performance criteria mentioned in the JD. For example, value-added behaviors such as making suggestions for improvements, being a good organizational citizen, and displaying extraordinary customer service are often excluded from the JD. And if they are mentioned, it is only in vague terms. Yet it is hard to deny that these behaviors are value-added behaviors that inevitably contribute to overall organizational performance.

I strongly advocate a broader interpretation of performance that goes beyond job-specific behaviors. This new definition of performance will support and reinforce desirable workplace accomplishment beyond the technical requirements of the job to be done. As a result, they are considered as part of the next four conversations in the Five Conversations Framework.

Missing performance behaviors

JDs have traditionally focused only on the attributes of a specific job, which is normally broken down into six to eight job-related tasks or functions. From my observations, this overreliance on JDs is still pretty much the case in most public- and private-sector organizations worldwide.

JDs continue to be defined by the explicit features of the technical requirements of the job. Consequently, they neglect — or at best give lip service to — performance behaviors relevant to the organizational role. So, a more extensive model factoring in both job and non-job dimensions is overdue.

As I argued in Chapter 1, I think the reality is this: The continual emphasis on a job orientation in performance is the result of a need to create a legally defensible performance appraisal system.

Driven by legal constraints, JDs do not stress the value and importance of performance that is not task-related. But in reality, as I say, work performance is two-dimensional, composed both of work required by a company and by discretionary employee work behaviors in the completion of those tasks.

Task-based work required by the organization is usually covered in a well-crafted JD. But optional employee work activities such as those mentioned are considered important but not documented. Developing a two-dimensional model that recognizes the importance of non-task performance is critical in valuing overall organizational performance.

Excerpted from The End of the Performance Review, By Dr. Tim Baker, Copyright Tim Baker 2013. First published 2013 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN. reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan’

Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant with a wealth of experience and a broad and deep skills-set. As Managing Director of Australia-based WINNERS AT WORK, he has specialised in assisting small, medium and large public and private sector organisations manage change successfully for 18 years. Together with being an international consultant, Tim is a successful author, executive coach, master trainer, corporate educator, visiting university lecturer and keynote speaker. Contact him at tim@winnersatwork.com.au.

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