HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Do You Really Need a Job Description?

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (Spring, 2003), the HR Group newsletter.

If you really require a job description to do your job, then I don’t want you working for my company. You see I expect you to know what your overall responsibilities are and I expect you to fulfill them. Yes we will provide orientation and training where required, but we don’t provide you with a strict “To Do” list that you must meticulously follow. We want you to do whatever is required to get the overall work done and that may vary; it may even entail cleaning up, heaven forbid, even though it’s not in your job description. Worse yet, it may even require you to make independent decisions that aren’t detailed in your job description.

We often hear managers talk about the necessity and importance of having clear up-dated job descriptions for all staff. I’ve made a habit of asking them if they have one themselves; the answer is usually no. I further ask them if they need one to understand what their responsibilities are. They start to look slightly uncomfortable and say no they don’t.

So why do all their staff require job descriptions? Are they less intelligent, less responsible, less able to think for themselves? Or do they need to have all of their actions and initiative controlled?

A job description has traditionally been expected to outline what the duties and responsibilities of a position are. All too often this has become a 2 to 3 page or even longer “To Do” list rather than a brief one-paragraph outline. We have seen 7 page descriptions in the public service. This type of task list only serves to limit the initiative and scope of all employees. It tends to lead to the “It’s not in my job description” mentality and it stands in the way of multi-skilling, cross-training, and teamwork.

In many unionized environments there is a requirement for detailed job descriptions. This is precisely because so many unions stand in the way of cross-training and multi-skilling as they know that such effective and productive practices may lead to less union membership. Only an electrician is allowed to change a light bulb. The office clerk, who changes them at home all the time, is not allowed to and neither is the carpenter and certainly not the manager who would then be “stealing” union work. This is the mentality that is propagated by the use of your standard detailed job description. This is not a mentality that is conducive to a participative, cost effective workplace where all employees at all levels need to look at the overall “work” that has to be accomplished instead of looking only within the vary narrow confines of their job descriptions.

William Bridges in Job Shift (1994) states that there is a distinct move away from the narrow and restrictive concept of individual “jobs” to a broader perspective that looks at the overall “work” that needs to be accomplished. This work may be done by individuals, but it might also be done by a team, by an outside contractor, by a series of individuals on a rotational basis, or in any number of other ways. Establishing individual defined jobs is restrictive and not necessarily the most cost effective and productive approach to getting the work done.

Some larger organizations that have job evaluation systems will insist that they need a detailed job description to evaluate and rank their jobs. Here again, this is a traditional practice that is highly bureaucratic and not very productive. Job evaluation systems are purely a means of producing an internal ranking of jobs within the organization. Complex quantitative systems have been shown to be no more accurate than asking a representative group to rank all positions based on their knowledge of and familiarity with the positions in question. More importantly, job evaluation systems do not by themselves establish salary levels. Modern compensation practices primarily focus on the outside market and skill levels as well as individual and organizational productivity, rather than on any measure of internal ranking. Individual specialists and professionals, for example, may make as much if not more than some managers that are perceived to be of a higher ranking within the organization.

Many will also say that a job description is a useful tool for recruitment purposes and for the determination of training needs and manpower planning. It is true that job descriptions can be a useful tool in these areas as well as for outside salary market surveys, but all that is required is a brief paragraph or two that outlines the basic overall responsibilities of the job. It should also include, but seldom does, an outline of not only the knowledge required, but the behavioral competencies that are also an integral requirement of the job. A good receptionist, for example, must be able to present a cheerful, pleasant and helpful demeanor to all concerned both in person and over the phone; it is not enough to be purely technically proficient on the computer.

Job applicants will sometimes ask us for a detailed job description of a senior position which we are advertising on behalf of one of our clients. What we invariably find is that these applicants are not qualified in the first place and have little knowledge of the positions being advertised. An accounts payable clerk does not need a job description to tell him or her what the major responsibilities of the job are; neither does a chief administrative or chief executive officer, a controller or a janitor.

The traditional job description is outmoded and counter productive in today’s workplace. If you want responsible, thinking employees with initiative, then get rid of their detailed job descriptions. Tell your employees what you expect of them, provide them with the appropriate orientation and ongoing training and let them get the “work” done rather than a narrow list of tasks. This is a far more successful approach to productivity, quality, safety, and customer service. It is also the best defense for any Risk Management; employees that can and are allowed to think prevent far more problems than detailed job descriptions and other bureaucratic policies and procedures.


Bridges, W., 1994. Job Shift. Reading: Addison Wesley.