Where Job Descriptions Fail and How to Fix Yours

Even when they are accurate to begin with (not always the case), it’s all too easy for job descriptions to get out of date, and that causes all sorts of problems, practical and legal, for employers.

The most typical problems have to do with job specifications that are inaccurate. They either require something that isn’t truly required or they describe duties that are no longer relevant.

Job Specs Unreasonably High

A number of state and federal government agencies (particularly the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)) have concluded in a number of instances that job specifications are unrealistically high.

When job requirements are too stringent, overqualified but underutilized persons are hired for the job, and others who could have performed the work effectively are not hired.

For example, if the jobholder is not required to perform any duty requiring more than a high school education, the job specification should call for a high school or equivalent diploma. Requiring a college degree would not only be inappropriate for the job, it might also get you into trouble.

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Job Specs Not Relevant to the Job

A step worse, perhaps, is when the incumbent or incumbents never perform the listed activity. This could be:

  • Generalizing. (“Everyone who works in the plant has to be able to lift 40 pounds, operate the fork truck, and reach product from the upper shelves of the storage racks.”) It’s unlikely that every employee has to be able to do all these tasks, and in a large plant, even if it’s occasionally part of someone’s job, there are likely others who can step in during those moments to do that particular task.
  • Holdover. There may be other job requirements that were essential in earlier times but are no longer part of the job. For example:
    • Used to be required to lift 50 pounds; now there’s a mechanical lifter that does the lifting.
    • Used to have to exercise judgment (e.g., evaluating a raw log to determine how to cut it in the most profitable way), but now a computer makes that determination, and the incumbent is an operator with little judgment required.

How Do You Know?

Here are some questions to help you find problems:

  • Are people being hired who are overqualified? They probably won’t last, and if they do, they won’t be very productive.
  • Are people being hired who have the wrong skills for the job? Hiring someone who excels at a requirement that isn’t relevant won’t make for a good hire.
  • Are these individuals becoming dissatisfied with their jobs?
  • Are current job specifications actually being used (in hiring, job evaluation, performance appraisal, etc.)?
  • Are current specifications keeping out individuals who might make a valuable contribution to the organization?
  • When was the last time that job specifications were reviewed?

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What’s the Harm?

Invalid job specifications end up creating a kind of chaos in the workplace and may end up harming the individual and the organization. Some potential pitfalls are:

  • Dissatisfaction. This is likely to set in when overqualified people are hired, and it will inevitably lead to:
  • High turnover. Dissatisfied people will leave at the first opportunity, which leads to:
    • High training costs,
    • Loss of material resources,
    • Low productivity, and
    • Low morale.
  • Legal hassles. Most typically, legal charges and suits will result from denying a person the job on the basis of an outdated or irrelevant requirement. It’s a hard suit to defend when the requirement is there on the job description and ample evidence exists to show that it is not required for performing the job.

And, of course, there’s the Americans with Disabilities Act to consider. It requires an interactive discussion and consideration of reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities who apply for your job.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we present a job description checklist plus an introduction to BLR’s unique checklist-based HR audit system.