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Job Descriptions: Their Nature and Importance

Summary: Job descriptions must never become simple written reflections of whatever employees actually do. They define a pattern of behavior expectations.

Learn how to use job descriptions to your advantage in attracting the best candidates.

Job descriptions have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity over the years, with perhaps the height of their popularity coming during and shortly after World War I, as organizations grew rapidly in size and sought means for making large aggregations of resources manageable and efficient. In the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s job descriptions were shunned somewhat as people began to see them as primarily a symbol of bureaucracy and essentially a constraint on normal employee growth and development. Further, they were perceived as a factor limiting what management could do in an organization in response to demands for rapid change.

No one format and style for job descriptions has ever been widely accepted. They still come in all colors, shapes, and sizes in the practicing world. Sometimes they are highly elaborate documents. At other times they paint a portrait of the job in very few, simple sentences. Often, different types of formats and styles are found for job descriptions within a given organization. However, most organizations do not do a very good job of preparing job descriptions.

Many organizations get excited about them at one point in time and then forget about them for extended periods until they come on hard times, for example, and experience a critical need for control. Most organizations do not understand the potential value of job descriptions and consequently highly underutilize them. The real tragedy comes in the many organizations that misunderstand what job descriptions are and consequently misuse them. The main point of this article is to identify clearly what job descriptions are and to emphasize, in general, why they are valuable.


To understand and appreciate the job description it is useful to describe it in the following ways from different angles:

A written display: A job description is a written display (paper document, computer screen image, blackboard presentation, etc.) explicitly describing what an employee does in the organization. It communicates to the reader what the job is like. It includes information about the employee's job but its focus is on depicting the duties and responsibilities the employee is expected to execute for the organization once in that role.

When such a written display is prepared for each position in the organization instead of for each class of similar positions it is often, and probably more appropriately, called a position description. A model of work design: A job description is a model of the design of the work performed by the employee. When properly developed, it profiles the major components of a job's structure. It will generally not attempt to cover all facets of a job's design. To describe everything about a job is not necessary and indeed is impossible since jobs contain unplanned components, which are necessary but unforeseeable engagements. Also, trying to describe a job in great detail may require too costly an effort.

Key elements of the intrinsic task makeup of the job and of the physical and social environments in which the tasks are performed are generally included in the job description model. How the job relates, administratively and operationally, to other jobs in the organizational system is an element of structure usually identified in the model. Also, certain kinds of relationships among different tasks are often implied if not displayed explicitly in the job description.

A work plan: A job description is a work plan map that shows direction. As a plan it shows that the work in which the employee engages has been thought through in a rational, conscious fashion--anticipated in advance of execution.

As a plan it shows that work is not left to chance. It shows work is not something that is largely spontaneous. As a plan it shows that somebody has engaged in the considered evaluation of alternatives that deliberate choices about what the employee does in the organization have been made. Moreover, as a plan, the job description serves to provide a boundary for employee activity in the organization. One is expected to conform to the plan, not to vault into any domain that might suit the worker.

A role prescription: The job description is, or should be, a role prescription. It should not describe what the worker does if this is not what the organization wishes the worker to do. Job descriptions must prescribe--spell out those duties and responsibilities in which the organization thinks the employee should engage.

Job descriptions must never become simple written reflections of whatever employees actually do. The job description is the standard and defines a pattern of behavior expectations.

Actual behavior must be compared with this prescription for control purposes.

The term role is significant here too, and it has a broader connotation than the term job. The word “job” usually connotes simply a set of tasks operative and/or managerial--but, nonetheless, tasks. The concept of role incorporates such notions as work relations with others, justification for existence of the position, the impact of one’s behavior in the position on the other workers, as well as when, where, and with what resources tasks should be performed. It implies that a number of features of one's work world need to be identified and understood if job descriptions are to serve as a useful management tool.

See the following articles for more information: