Square pegs need a square hole

How often have you heard it said that for a company the people are the most important asset?  Talent acquisition and retention is essential for business success and yet we are failing to tell them what to do and why.

According to yesterday’s People Management update: Three quarters of UK workforce unsure what skills their job requires. (You can read it here).  The study found that many workers neither know which skills they need for their work, nor how best to improve their skills now and for opportunities in the future.  The study size was admittedly small but the confusion described isn’t surprising to me. I would go further and suggest that it is not only that the skills are unclear but, more importantly, the core purpose of roles and what success might look like.  This amounts to a misuse of talent and resources. It could be avoided in my view by a clear description of the role as it relates to the purpose and aspiration of the business where the job sits.

Not knowing what you are supposed to be doing, which of your skills is most appreciated and where you are going from here can be demotivating. Worse it can lead to a loss of business performance, turn-over, costs, missed learning and the loss of talent.  And if you don’t know, it’s because of one of two things: either the boss hasn’t clearly explained it, or, worse, s/he doesn’t really know.

Enter the Job Description

At the heart of this necessary exchange sits a key communication document: the humble Job Description or, JD.  Most commonly in my experience, this important document tends to be pulled out of a drawer when conflicts arise, when a restructure is in the air or a replacement is needed. Often it is overlooked when annual objectives are set and reviewed. Day to day work is allowed to drift from the original phrasing until one day re-reading it comes as a surprise.

It’s odd when companies invest heavily in communication of company strategy and performance for wider marketing purposes, that the the JD, which provides the direct link from the business to the companies “key asset” is often neglected by comparison.   A good JD – do not read ‘long’- serves two important functions. First, when enticing talent and developing the teams, it can clarify leadership minds as they work to attract talent from the marketplace. Second it provides a critical basis for managing and supporting the experience of the post-holder. It enables the development of the role and a democratic basis on which assumptions about the role in relation to business performance can be reviewed.

In reality this key document which is used to access our most expensive and complicated resource – people- is often poorly thought through, poorly written and routinely under-used. Within its lines should be the clear rationale for the investment in relation to the realisation of business aims. These must be described in such a way as to make sense to the holder of the JD and their manager. Even the lowest paid workers will cost several thousand pounds and should be part of the business’s success. Regardless of job type, workers have minds and ideas and initiative that can be used to build improvements to the whole business.

List of tasks or inspiring directions?

The JD I was reviewing was turgid. Swollen with details of stuff to do, and with no clarity of how these activities clustered around the core purpose for doing them. Almost certainly there will be omissions. Hence the need for that awful little catch-all sentence: ‘and anything else the manager might reasonably expect’ which I routinely delete. The hapless job holder, assuming one can be found, and their manager will struggle to define and agree the priorities within the role, wasting important start-up time.  More importantly, if a job holder is held to account on a set of activities the opportunity for discussion on innovation, inventiveness, feedback and change is much harder than against higher level outcomes.

A further study,  CIPD research published in October 2018 found almost half of UK workers reported being mismatched to their roles, with 37 per cent over-skilled and 12 per cent under-skilled. Better work on this key building block could reduce the pain and cost associated with these mis-matches.