If You Want to Keep Your Employees, Kill Your Job Descriptions

February 23, 2018 • 4 minute read • by Saeed

“I got to get on the good foot” ~ James Brown

James Brown released the track ‘Get on the Good Foot’ in 1972 as a two-part single on an album of the same name released in the same year. It was his first gold record. To me, this track is all about playing to your strengths – something we rarely do with our employees.

That process starts with job descriptions, which are almost always some ancient HR relic created for compensation.

Why Job Descriptions Suck

The obligatory job description that identifies an employee’s tasks and responsibilities is regarded as the critical building block of HR. But most are outdated, poorly structured, generic, bloated, overly complex word salads that hardly ever actually describe jobs. It is ironic that we even call them “job descriptions.” We should just call them what they really are: ‘let’s-hope-we-get-someone-really-good-wish lists.’

Perfect employees don’t exist. You are looking for a unicorn. That’s why no job description is going to be perfect, either. And that’s why you always end up slapping a horn on a horse.

Job descriptions do everything but deliver on their eponymous promise. So why not kill them? Or at least choke them a little.

What Research Says

This idea is not too farfetched when considering some recent studies. Working off the premise that many hiring practices today are poorly suited to the rapid changes confronting many businesses, UCL School of Management Assistant Professor Vaughn Tan examined whether or not people performed better when they were able to adapt their job descriptions to focus on their strengths and drop those components they felt were not beneficial. The result was a more satisfied and successful workforce.

Or take as evidence a recent study by Wharton’s Adam Grant and members of Facebook’s HR team. They looked at workers who were retained over time and those who quit their jobs despite the perks of working at the innovative social networking company. The study revealed that when managers tailored a job to a given employee’s passions, talents and priorities, rather than try to slot them into a preconceived role, they ended up with more satisfied and engaged workers who were retained longer.

The Minimalist Approach

If you only have a partial idea of who you need to hire and what those people need to do anyway, why not try a paradigm shift? Instead of packing a bowling ball into a marble bag, try building out only the skeleton of a job description and allowing candidates to co-design the fuller description with you in a way that speaks to their strengths and to your needs. Research shows that this approach works well for rapidly changing industries such as technology start-ups, advertising, and film production companies where predicting the future is more difficult. It is actually really easy to make your job descriptions speak to the candidate, describe their key objectives, and be open to possible alternative backgrounds.

A Final Word

If you want to keep your people — especially your stars — it’s time to pay more attention to how you design their work. Most companies design job descriptions and then slot people into them. But as they continue to compete for talented people, they will begin to create jobs around them. Keeping job descriptions minimal, instead of the current practice of covering all the bases, creates more possibilities and more opportunities. Unicorns don’t have to be real for people to believe in them. The same goes with the “perfect candidate.”So why not try something new and allow people to dance on their good foot.

Good luck.

Wait! Before you go…

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©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

2 Replies to “If You Want to Keep Your Employees, Kill Your Job Descriptions”

  1. Saeed, I absolutely LOVE this concept. Do you have an example of this job skeletal description of the future? We are trying to build our own and challenged to break out of old HR habits and thinking.


    1. Hi Liz – Thanks for your comment. It’s easy to do. Here is how: on a sheet of paper create two columns. On the left side write in your must-haves. On the right side write in your nice – to – haves. The left side is your skeleton, your essentials, the things you can’t compromise on and the things that will end up in your job description. The right side are not throw away items. They are now items you can negotiate and make better given the specific skills set is the candidates that grab your interest. The right side is your starting point for Co-creating the job description with your candidate. As a general rule of thumb,’the left side should be shorter than the right side. Hope if that helps:)


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