On scrapping job descriptions

I sometimes wonder whether anyone actually looks at their job descriptions once they are appointed. If you do, then why do you? Perhaps it is to ensure that you are not getting out of your lane and tripping over someone else’s work, or inadvertantly taking on responsibilities which should attract more remuneration. Perhaps you simply don’t want to do more than your minimum requirements to be successful in the role, or you see your JD as a guide to what you have to do, so that you don’t have to figure that out afresh every day. Once used to get your foot in the door, does the JD not become less and less important and relevant? 

And so I tend to see a job description as serving more of a purpose for the employer than the applicant. 

First, it is bait. The more appealing it looks, the more likely we are to catch a bigger fish in the jobs market. A JD signals to the outside world the specific work we think we need doing and, usually, puts a value on that work. We are defining the market in which we want to buy and set our budget accordingly. Yet there is a paradox at work in which the more we specify the more we restrict the size of the market we are fishing in. In traditional procurement we might look for a company that can supply a solution to our problem. But often we go much further than assuming the market has the answer; we also assume we can define that answer first, too. We then go to great detail in the specifying the components of the solution we want, thus crowding out any likelihood that the market might offer a more innovative or cost-effective solution. So it is with a job description. The greater the specification and the more the detailed points we expect applicants to cover, the more we limit your market. 

Not only that, but this approach implies an underlying assumption that we know what needs to be done. Clearly, in many instances, this will be the case. We know, for example, in technical or professional areas, what skills are requied. Need an accountant or a IT engineer and, assuming you know your market, you can find your talent. What if we consider for one moment that we might not even know our market? Back in the 2000s I knew that I wanted a data analyst to undertake quantative research and data visualisation to help me and my colleagues understand the social issues across our communities. Yet an initial advert for a data analyst brounght applications not from social scientists or mathematicians but from tech professionals for whom the term data analyst meant something completely different. I knew what I wanted to achieve yet I didn’t find the people to help me because I didn’t know the language to use or the market I should be shopping in. 

Second, a JD is also a functional piece of a wider process of making business cases and securing agreement to add to the organisation’s establishment. How can you make the case for more staff if you can’t even set out on a couple of pages what you want them to do? All of which is to say that the JD serves a purpose of attempting to explicitly codify the current and anticipated requirements of a role that we have evaluated as being crucial for the development or success of the company. It’s probably already taken us several months to navigate internal decision-making processes and get to this point. We are now so committed to the process that any shifting in the circumstances that precipitated the need for the post are unlikely to be picked up or acted upon. 

The same arguments as to why traditional approches to procurement and commissioning often fail also apply recruitment. We write a specification (or job description), usually in too much detail and based on assumptions. We put it out to the (employment) market and wait to see who has interpreted their set of skills and experience to be enough of a match to the words we have used to covey what we think are our needs. Then we score these applications for the role against some fixed criteria that represent our best guess of the qualities we are looking for to create the illusion of a quantifyable process. And then, where necessary, we tweak the assessment numbers to ensure you appoint the candidate (or company) we liked the most – almost certainly someone like us. Numbers are great in presenting the illusion of rigour and absence of bias, of course. Then we make an offer, appoint, and spend three months waiting for them to work their notice period, congratulating ourselves through our rose-coloured glasses on how great we are to have found an amazing candidate. By which time we are over a year removed from the initial realisation that we need to recruit in the first place. 

If we accept the resulting hypothesis that JDs and traditional mechanisms for recruitment are fundamentally flawed as an approach, how else might we proceed? 

Perhaps we chould sell the organisation, set the challenge, invite propositions to help, rather than publish a detailed specification. This could apply just as happily to ‘help us maintain and continuously improve our IT infrastructure and help all staff maximise their technology’ as to ‘help us figure out how to package up our ideas and make them commercially available to prospective clients’ or ‘help us meet the legislative requirements around data protection’ and ‘help us understand more about the life chances of disadvantaged young people and what could be done to improve them’. There would be little need to specify anything more. Perhaps you might want to be clear about experience or qualifications, but this is generally only helpful if you want to make sure you are hiring a bona fide vet or an accountant or to rule out the legally or technically ineligible. Qualifications aren’t everything. 

Another alternative, as I have explored in a commissioning sense previously, is a blend of open calls and co-design. Invest more in understanding the work and engage with a team rather than an individual. Bring together a range of people in an environment where we can collaborate deeply to further our understanding of the issues at hand and start to figure out what approaches might work, what skills we might need. Some might be external who we bring in on a contractual basis, some might be existing staff. There is also evidence that one way to help overcome inherent biases is by avoiding ‘case by case’ recruitment and waiting until we are ready to recruit two or three new starters. Recruit in parallel, not series.

We also need to overcome the fact that job titles and qualifications can lead to stereotyping. There still tends to be an underlying assumption that we are all on a single career trajectory whereby we have undertaken our initial training, done our early career due diligence at junior levels, slowly ‘climbed’ to a position that positions us beautifully for the next, perfectly specified career opportunity. But just because you are a qualified accountant doesn’t mean you will always want to do accountancy work or don’t have other practices you can bring to the organisation. Just because you were originally employed in one role (insert your Job Title here) doesn’t mean you do not have value to bring to other areas of organisational need. We pigeon-hole people by ‘what they do’, which works best for those with clear professions. Not sure which you are? Try this: do you need to ponder your response to the party question ‘What do yo do?’.

This notion of the single profession is capture in the idea of ’T-shaped’ profiles: we have a broad range of foundational knowledge but with deep expertise in our professional area. Accounants still need some broad strategy and project skills, for example. I’ve recently heard of ‘pi’ shaped profiles – those with two deep intersecting areas of expertise. Better, but for those of us more multi-disciplinary is what Epstein, in his book Range, describes as the ‘star-shape’ – multiple points of knowledge and expertise, drawing on different genres. My experience is that traditional systems of recruitment work best for T-shaped and least well for stars. 

Perhaps CVs need to move away from bland ‘I statements’ and arbitary impact metrics to descriptors of personal missions. Interviews would be focused on the match: ‘what could you do to help us and what can we do to help you?’. This might help avoid the song and dance routine of here’s how great I am and here’s the evidence for that. We all know that interviews only cover our ability to use the spoken word and our ability at self-marketing. The best at both, those that are the most polished and the most eloquent, are the most likely to be appointed. Yet we all know eloquence does not equal competence (unless you are a voice-over artist or after-dinner speaker, perhaps). 

Were we to actually enforce JDs as rigorously as procurement professions enforce contracts, with variations to specification all coming at a cost, nothing the company needed would ever get done. Employees would be so busy working on keeping their JD up to date with the requirements of the role and negotiating changes that they wouldn’t have time to get around to the actual work. The constraints provided by working within a fixed role, within a specified team, don’t enable us to read and react to emerging business needs of the organisation. The challenge is that this does not create an environment in which people can show up in full. The road ahead lies, inevitably, to new opportunities elsewhere. The frustration of being told to do ABC when you can clearly see that J,S and X not only need work but that you also have the abilities and experience to tend to them leads to maximum frustration. 

Most important, then, are the experiences, the insights, the approaches, the mindset we all bring. Hire a person, gain someone with a range of skills and experiences and qualifications and an often unknown and unappreciated level of value they could offer. The task of the manager, the team, the organisation is to liberate that potential within each member of staff. But buy a role, and get someone conditioned to largely perform within that role and who is seen by the label of the role and not as a rounded human being with multiple talents. 

Little wonder there are some organisations that have moved away from JDs. They see them as limiting. The challenge for me is this – how to achieve a harmonious match between personal qualities and organisational need? Perhaps we should adopt the principle of ‘less is more’ and see what happens. Perhaps we might make it easier to achieve a great fit between organisation and candidate, like the first time you try on a new pair of shoes and smile in the recognition that they simply had to have been designed specifically for the ideosyncracies of your feet. You know you’ll be able to walk far without too much unnecessary pain.

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