Workplace Culture

How Important Is Sticking to Job Descriptions?

By Staff Report

Apr. 10, 2014

Dear Concerned:

I can tell you are worried about unintended consequences if executives do not address the issue of increasing workloads head-on. I am breaking your question into two parts to address each one individually.

First, can an employee be asked to take on tasks that are not specifically listed in the job description? To answer this it’s important to clarify the purpose of these documents. A job description is a tool that enumerates the key responsibilities for a job. It serves many different functions. It is initially used in recruiting to help candidates understand what is expected and what skills are needed to be successful. Once an individual is on board, the job description is often consulted to design employee training, establish salary ranges, set department goals and work with employees to address their performance. They are good tools and they are valuable for workforce structure; don’t throw them out.

On the other hand, a job description is not a task checklist for a particular individual. In fact, the best job descriptions I have seen contain a disclaimer of sorts. The document describes the work and then says something like “and other duties as may be necessary.” It’s impossible for someone to capture every aspect of a role in a job description. As you said, these are more fluid than static. It is therefore acceptable — in fact it’s quite common — for a manager to ask his or her direct reports to take on work not listed in a job description. This is especially true if the requests for additional work are occasional or intermittent. 

Second, as you point out, job description or no, there is a negative impact to the organization when employees constantly feel overwhelmed by their workload. The solutions are slightly different, depending on the root cause for this problem

Often employees tell me they feel afraid to discuss the impact of taking on additional work with their boss. Consequently, they say yes to everything, knowing there is no way that it can all get done effectively within reasonable time frames. I call this problem “commitment management.” There are ways to help employees and employers negotiate these requests effectively. Read “Who Will Do What by When” by Tom Hanson and Birgit Zacher Hanson; it explains a simple process that can be followed. 

Another possibility is that the employees don’t know how to prioritize the work, so they feel everything must be done immediately. I call this problem “priority management.” The solution to this is for employees to approach their bosses and ask them for help establishing an order for completion of tasks and a timeline. Most often, employees learn that there is more flexibility in the schedules than they thought.

Finally, many people have trouble managing their time and therefore are unable to complete the important work quickly. Hundreds of books have been written on this topic. One I like is called “Getting Things Done”by David Allen.

I think there are solutions to the concerns you raise. Hopefully this feedback gives you a framework for a productive conversation with the executives.

SOURCE: Ellen Raim, vice president of human resources, Cascade Microtech, Beaverton, Oregon, March 25, 2014

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