Job descriptions: ammunition for resistant employees

I have become convinced that it’s high time to rid the world of job descriptions. Job descriptions are impossible to keep current, have outgrown their usefulness, are no longer relevant and are being used for evil – not good in the workplace. Worse yet, job descriptions are enabling leaders to fall back on the “written word” rather than truly leading their people, directing work and having those uncomfortable, but clarifying conversations on a regular basis. 

Obviously, I have been set off by an incident to so radically call for the death of the job description.  Here it is: I was working with a manager who was attempting to basically save a company and the 550 jobs involved. As things got more and more complex, the deadline tight, and the customer requests less than ordinary, the leader began to ask employees to step up and stretch themselves by adopting some new duties and, in general, chip in to make sure that promises were delivered and customers delighted. 

I was dismayed as more than one employee used their energy not to jump in and help but instead to insist of further clarity of what exactly their role was and how the leader’s request would fit in with their current job titles. One even asked if he were to take on more responsibility, would his salary be adjusted to compensate?

OK, I get that at some point when employers were the abusive patriarchic entities, employees needed the clarity – and even protection – of a job description in place of adult conversation, negotiation skills, and in general, manager/employee relationships.

But here’s the reality check…

What strikes me as strange is that employees are keen to demand that managers treat them as high functioning adults, give them the highest amount of respect, work to engage, develop, partner and care about them, in effect, demanding that leaders maximize their relationship with employees in all ways possible. When in return, those same employees resort to the minimum in their service to the company and seek refuge in their job description – the ultimate double standard with lowest payoff for the employer. So what happens in capitalism when the value of a thing no longer outweighs its costs? The system stops investing resources in that relationship – a career suicide for the employee.

So when employees in resistance begin to use job descriptions as ammunition, what’s a leader to do?

First, get very clear about the message being sent – that you have failed your people as a leader to the point that they are basically asking for hazard pay to do anything additional for you. How did you get there? By avoiding tough conversations, over-rewarding and under-leading, inflating your performance appraisal scores, dogging your coaching responsibilities? Figure it out and fix it! 

In the moment, one of my favorite responses to the “It’s not my job” statement is to simply agree. “You’re right; it’s not your job. It’s your role here with the company. Your role is to do whatever it takes within your licensure and within the law and code of ethics, to do whatever it takes to serve our customers.” I usually go on to help them better understand the purpose of a job description in our organization. “Your job description is simply my best guess as to how you might spend some of your time while employed here at the organization, outlining the most minimal duties you can be expected to succeed at to be considered as an employee past your probationary period, and a document that is also required by law.”  At the conclusion of which I would recommend asking the employee how they intend to successfully fulfill their role with the company. 

A job description outlines the transaction of employment – what an employee is paid for what they’ve completed in the past pay period. How an employee plays their role is how they will qualify for future opportunities, training, development, promotions, and longevity with the company. 

So why don’t managers step up and have these clarifying conversations? They are hiding behind the piece of paper as well. Relying on the paper to do the talking, coaching, developing and leading. If you are one of those managers, I have just one question for you, “How’s that working for you as you work to deliver great results seamlessly to your customers?”

Get rid of the descriptions, get rid of the emotional blackmail, and replace it with good old-fashioned leadership involvement. 

And by the way, this blog was not listed within my job description but definitely fell within my role as a thought leader. 

And remember you rock and Cy rocks!

Lead on my friend!

And Cy’s newest book definitely rocks!  Look for Reality Based Leadership – Ditching the Drama, Restoring Sanity to the Workplace and Turning Excuses Into Results due out in October 2010 from Jossey Bass.