A Zillion More Reasons to Abolish Job Descriptions

Nov 4, 2010

As most of you know, I think job descriptions are the primary reason why companies can’t find or hire top talent. For this reason alone they should be abolished. Here’s the first dozen of a zillion reasons why.

  1. Except for the list of responsibilities, they don’t define jobs at all; they define people taking the jobs. If these descriptions left out the required skills, years of experience, industry background, and academic requirements, they’d actually offer something useful as a place to start.
  2. They’re bogus. If there are more than a few people who can do the work required without having all of the skills, experience, industry, and academic background listed on the job description, it means the list is bogus. We all know managers develop these lists as rough guidelines to filter out the obviously unqualified. Rarely is it based on a scientific study including a detailed job analysis correlated with the skills and experiences of those already successfully performing the job. On this basis alone, the requirements listed are questionable.
  3. They’re illegal. If qualified minorities are excluded from consideration based on bogus criteria, wouldn’t that constitute some type of questionable selection process? Additional proof: we all know many people who get promoted into these roles or hired from the outside who don’t possess the requirements listed. (See point 4 below for more on this.)
  4. They aren’t used for internal promotions. The reasons people who get promoted into bigger jobs are primarily because of their leadership, potential, team skills, and a track record of delivering results. By definition, a promotion means these people don’t have the experience and skills listed on the job description. The purpose of these moves is to obtain these skills and experiences. So if they’re not used for internal promotional moves, why should they be used for outside hiring?
  5. They eliminate high-potential candidates from consideration. The best people — especially passive candidates — want career moves that stretch them. Few top people will respond to a job posting that emphasizes skills and experiences unless it’s with a well-known company, or if they are persuaded to check it out through a trusted person or recruiter who contact them. This extra hand-holding narrows the field of people who would even be interested in talking. Worse, most hiring processes screen out these people before they even get through the door.
  6. They don’t predict on-the-job performance. We’ve all met plenty of people with the requisite skills, academics, and experiences who aren’t top performers, and we’ve all met plenty of top performers with a different mix of skills, experiences, and academics. Think about all of those top performers who got promoted in point 4 above. If they don’t predict performance, why would anyone use them to screen candidates?
  7. They turn off passive candidates. The best people — even those who are looking — base their decision to evaluate a company, compare offers, and accept one over another based primarily on the three Cs: career, compensation, and culture. No one bases it on the requirements listed in the job description. So why even include them in the posting? Idea: just include the bare minimum of requirements while emphasizing the employee value proposition and a high-level summary of the big projects the person will be handling.
  8. They make diversity hiring more difficult. Many, if not most, diverse candidates bring a different mix of background experiences to the table. That’s one of the reasons why they’re invaluable hires. Under this situation, why would you want to apply a non-diverse, generic filter to screen out diverse candidates? Yet this is what happens when traditional job descriptions are used to find non-traditional hires.
  9. They’re designed to weed out the worst, not attract the best. Most people justify the reason for listing skills and experiences in their job postings by saying it’s to eliminate the clearly unqualified. Unfortunately, in the process, they also prevent the best from even applying. This idea might be okay if the supply of top-notch, high-potential qualified candidates is greater than demand. Since this is rarely the case, on this point alone, they should be abolished.
  10. You don’t need them for building a pool of candidates. There is no law that says you must list all of your job requirements to build a pipeline of candidates for future jobs. (If you think there is, please ask your lawyer to cite it for you and include the actual verbiage in your comments. Also, don’t cite the Uniform Guidelines, since it doesn’t describe how to create a pool of candidates.) Somehow people have gotten the idea that posting an individual job description is based on some legal requirement. Actually, the idea was created as a way to maximize revenue for job boards. Consider pre-Internet advertising: most companies posted large display ads advertising groups of jobs. This is now coming back in vogue as companies create candidate pipelines.
  11. They decrease employee satisfaction and increase turnover. If you don’t tell people what they’ll be doing before they start on a new job, the likelihood the person will find the actual work involved exciting, appropriate, and satisfying is problematic. Clarifying expectations up front has been shown to be the primary driver of on-the-job performance and employee satisfaction. In my mind this should represent the bulk of the job description, with some minimalist statement about the skills and experience requirements.
  12. They make no sense. Why not fit the job to the person, rather than fit the person to a job? I’ve worked on many search assignments where the initial job was modified to optimize the person’s abilities and passions. While this was done to increase the likelihood the person would accept the offer, the end result was that jobs that were sculpted this way resulted in improved on-the-job performance, reduced turnover, and increased employee satisfaction.

Of course, you need some level of skills and experiences to handle the actual job requirements, but in most cases managers use job descriptions as shortcuts to get the requisition approved. Unfortunately this shortcut has serious downstream repercussions, as described above. Without defining the real job as a series of performance requirements or tasks, we eliminate the best possible candidates from consideration, increase the difficulty of hiring more diverse candidates, and hire people who are unlikely to perform at peak levels even if they are fully qualified. It’s hard for me to believe anyone can defend the use of job description from a business, legal, or moral standpoint. But I’m sure many of you will try.

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