Setting The Limits of Responsibility

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

Understanding why job descriptions are important to organizational effectiveness and smooth functioning.

Image this scene: You have just called one of your lead hands into your office to discuss his lack of progress. You are ticked off by his argumentative attitude and the fact that he becomes angry with anyone who gives him an order. He has become a thorn in your side and you would really like to find an excuse to get rid of him. However, he claims that he doesn’t really know who his boss is. Everybody seems to give him orders and two supervisors frequently demand his efforts at the same time

He claims that one day he is assigned one set of duties and the next day someone expects him to do something different. He says he is interested in the job, but he is confused, frustrated and can’t see any way of keeping out of hot water with his superiors, let alone any way of getting ahead. “Just what is it I’m supposed to do around here and to whom am I really responsible?” he asks.

Who has the problem now? You do, of course, and it looks like you helped create it. Your lead hand is really in a bind. He isn’t clear about what he is supposed to do and for whom. Nor does he know what this job leads to, except trouble.

All of this could have been avoided if you had given this man a clear-cut job description. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of firms, like this one that operate by the seat of their pants. Employees are supposed to learn their duties by a kind of osmosis or by seeing what does or doesn’t get them into hot water. This is similar to getting instructions like the woman on a bus who asked a fellow passenger to tell her when to get off at Main Street.

“It’s easy,” the other replied. “Watch me and get off one stop before I do.”

Operating without job descriptions makes for confused employees and managers, an inefficient operation, and it leaves the firm wide open for law suits for wrongful dismissal since the fired employee can challenge you to prove that he wasn’t doing his job or wasn’t doing it to company specifications. If there is no record of the actual duties and their standards, you won’t have a leg to stand on. In addition, when it comes time to assess your workers for raises, how are you going to do it if you aren’t sure what they are really supposed to be doing?

Many firms grow from a few congenial employees who know each other to a large number of workers who require a more formal management system. Some companies resist establishing such a system because of disinterest unwillingness to change, or because they erroneously feel the time to develop the system will cost more than it’s worth. None of these excuses are valid ones. The potential results far exceed the few disadvantages, if fact there are any, and any additional costs in establishing the system are miniscule compared to the cost of even one lawsuit.

Now that you are convinced that job descriptions are important and necessary, what should you do about it? The answer is fairly easy. Develop a comprehensive set of job descriptions for all your people. The basic elements of job descriptions are as follows:

Job-title: Assign the jobs a specific title or name. This isn’t as dumb as it sounds. There are many firms that have grown and no one really knows who for example is a lead hand and who is a supervisor.

Work-activities and procedures: This part of the job description contains a detailed description of the tasks and duties to be performed, the materials or machines and equipment to be used and what kinds of interactions the employee will have with other employees. For example, are they expected to work alone or in teams?

It is also important to include the reporting duties and the nature and extent of supervision given or received. Be sure to identify the people or positions involved in the latter. This is an essential part of the job description. It should contain a clear, concise statement of the scope and responsibility of the position.

Qualifications and skills required: Here one would list the educational background or experience needed for the hob. You may also wish to identify the personal qualities that are essential to the job. This is where you would include such information as licenses required, various machinery experience, apprenticeships complete, computer skills, writing abilities, physical fitness requirements or such things as a pleasant speaking voice for a receptionist. Identifying theses skills will also help you recognize your training needs. If you expect your supervisors to handle employee complaints, you should be asking yourself how they would learn how to do this. Perhaps this is where you should be planning for a seminar or workshop on the topic.

Working conditions: This is the area in which you will specify the expectations regarding hours of work, location, hazards etc. Will you for example expect your sales people to spend a certain percentage of their time in the field and another portion in the office?

Standards: What are the acceptable standards of performance? How will the employee be judged? What measures will be used? How often will he or she be judged and by whom?

Promotional possibilities: Where might this job lead? What is the next level to which one can expect to be promoted? Is this a job for which there is no provision for advancement? If so, how will you build in a system of job rotation in order to avoid crushing boredom?

Salary: Here you would record the salary grade or range that is associated with this job

Signatures: both the employee and his or her superior must sign the job description. This implies and demands that the employee has a say in the development of the job description. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the person doing the job probably knows more about it and what it entails than you do and his or her input will be essential. Secondly, who has a better right to know what the job requires and how he or she will be judged than the employee?

There are some excellent software programs to help you write good job descriptions. Search for them on the web, or visit any office supply store to see what they have.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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