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Role Clarity

By John Huckstepp SFIIRSM FCIPD 

Taking on the role of HR Manager gave Sam the discretion to decide where and when job descriptions should be used and what they should look like. It provided the opportunity Sam was looking for to shape the organisation. 

Job descriptions are seen as a last century thing - no history and no future. This article touches on the history, explores current thinking, and sets some rules for job descriptions of the future. It is part of a series of blogs looking at HR disruption and risk(1). 


According to modern Human Resource Management texts, work design started in 1776 with Adam Smith and the division of labour (2) although I would like to think that early flint-makers didn't keep producing tools by accident and wheelwrights didn't have to keep re-inventing the wheel. 

The next big step forward with job descriptions isn't recorded until the advent of scientific management and documented job descriptions in the early twentieth century. In the 1960's, experts started to look more closely at the concept of motivators and enrichment in job design. Little has changed until now. 

Job descriptions serve several purposes: 

  • They set out the values and expectations against which performance can be measured and the boundaires of the role. 
  • They identify the attributes (knowledge, skills, experience and other factors) necessary for a person to succeed in the role. 
  • In some organisations, the values and attributes identified in job descriptions combine to produce a market rate, which attempts to create equity between diverse roles. 


Job design thinking is being led by ideas such as innovation, smart, flexible, or self-managed working. How can the humble job description survive? 

There is a view that job descriptions are outdated. They are part of a bureaucratic machine stifling organisations and preventing them from succeeding. One author goes as far as to argue that job descriptions are the equivalent of grabbing a butterfly, killing it, sticking a pin through it, and sticking it on a wall with a description of its natural environment and mating habits (3). 

Others believe that job descriptions are obsolete, harmful, and ineffective, and that they are hard to keep up to date in an increasingly flexible world of work. It is true that many do seem to compartmentalise the job in such a rigid way as to make you feel claustrophobic. 

For many, job descriptions are an ineffective sales tool in a worker-dominated market.  They don’t pitch the job as well as organisations might pitch a company to investors, or products to customers. 

Some organisations have thrown away the job descriptions altogether, whilst others have sought to alter the wording to try to make the jobs sound exciting (4). None of this helps HR Managers who are struggling around what to have, and what to do with it. 



I still come across gender specific job titles despite the fact that most organisations have introduced neutral terms like sales representative, fire fighter, flight attendant, etc.  The opposite extreme is that employers have tried to create ‘sales-guru’ jobs without realising that if candidates aren’t putting the title in the search engine, the jobs/potential applicants are passing them by.

Good job descriptions document work factors and identify whether the role provides the structure, autonomy, variety, responsibility, scope and other factors to be a ‘good job’.

Including career paths or challenges on job descriptions can provide useful information to candidates or employees to help them to see the potential for growth or development within and from the role.

Incorporating job descriptions into employee review processes helps to keep the job description ‘real’ and ensures a level of employee buy-in and personal shaping of the role.

Job descriptions establish the scope and framework through which ideas can be safely developed and tested.

Using the job description as a discussion point in selection or review processes provides the means to identify where gaps exist.  Good organisations make sure important activity gets done and waste is removed.

Given that lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities was cited as a factor in 5 of the 16 worst modern-day disasters (5), it highlights the wider risks at play if job descriptions continue to hold their position as obsolete, harmful or ineffective.

Good leadership is about ensuring that employees know what is expected of them, performance is monitored, and appropriate action is taken (6).



1: Extract from the forthcoming short story ‘Up for it’ by John Huckstepp

2: Armstrong’s Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice, 13th Edition, Kogan Page, London, 2018

3: Job Descriptions Are A Waste Of Time, Liz Ryan, Forbes, Mar 15, 2015

4: The Job Description is Obsolete, Marissa Peretz, Forbes, Jun 13, 2018

5: A review of the literature on effective leadership behaviours for safety, Health & Safety Laboratories Research Report Number 952, 2012

6: The Human Resource Practitioner’s Guide to Health, Safety and Corporate Risk, 1st Edition, 2015


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