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HR practices revisited

Job description and classification

In this article, we look at how jobs are often used to streamline and organize work and life in organizations, but also limit the agility of a complex system. We ask these four questions:

  • What is the dominant thinking today in organizations about jobs, and job classification?
  • What is the ‘theory in use’, the deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) principles, assumptions and values behind it?
  • What are the consequences for the individual and the organization, for performance, flexibility and innovative power (generativity)?
  • What can you do differently and how will this benefit the ‘generative capacity’ of the organization and the ownership of all employees?

Current Practices ?

The processes surrounding job description, management and job classification differ from organization to organization, but they almost always include some of the characteristics listed below:

  • It’s a checklist of things the ‘job holder’ is supposed to do and to achieve
  • It states who the job holder is reporting to (hierarchically/functionally)
  • The time distribution between the various task clusters is (sometimes) indicated
  • The job descriptions are created centrally (usually by HR) and the job database is also centrally managed by them
  • Jobs are weighted, clustered into job ladders and evaluated in terms of paygrade (classification system)
  • These job descriptions are used for selection, onboarding, setting individual objectives and for job and evaluation interviews.

A few things stand out :

  • There is little ownership by the employee of the job content (it is a prescriptive, administrative document)
  • It is a rigid system that does not respond to very volatile environments in which priorities, tasks, reporting lines, etc… might change very quickly
  • Little attention is paid to the ‘impact’ of someone’s role, the relationship with internal customers and suppliers
  • How one can contribute to the ‘shared ambition’ in this role is not taken into account
Dominant Ideas on HR websites ?
This anonymous job description has all the characteristics of the ‘containment-paradigm’

job description or JD lists the main features of a specific job. The description typically includes the person’s main duties, responsibilities, and working conditions. It also includes the job title and to whom the person holding that job has to report. It is only possible to do a job description, however, after carrying out a job analysis.

A job analysis is a process that carefully examines a job and determines what its duties are. The analysis also determines the type of person who would be ideal for the job. (

In summary, the results of a job classification create parity in job titles, consistent job levels within the organization hierarchy, and salary ranges that are determined by identified factors. These factors include market pay rates for people doing similar work in similar industries in the same region of the country, pay ranges of comparable jobs within the organization, and the level of knowledge, skill, experience, and education needed to perform each job.(

What is the Theory in Use here ?

Broadly speaking, you can say that one usually starts from stability and predictability. We are really in a ‘containment & control paradigm’ here. It is assumed that ‘centrally in the organization’ people can know who should do what for the coming months or years. A number of specific indications for that are:

  • Due to the very precise description of the tasks and by linking it to evaluation and remuneration, the autonomy and scope of the employee concerned is very limited.
  • Through classification and ‘job-ladders’, internal mobility will also be very strongly prescribed and limited and put employees in a very narrow ‘career track’
  • The processes are very strongly directed from the hierarchy, top-down
  • Others, the system, the rules tell employees what to do when, how much of their time which means that they do not flexibly and intelligently adapt to fast changing circumstances

And what is the Impact ?

The more formal the system, in terms of job content description, management and classification, the more it will limit the flexibility of the organization as a system, and the autonomy and room for maneuver on the part of the employee. It undoubtedly slows down the generative capacity of the organization. A few specific elements:

  • It encourages people to tick off their ‘tasks’ instead of thinking about what they could do best at a certain moment, in a certain context or what the priority would be.
  • It focuses on the ‘job’ rather than the ‘contribution’ to the shared ambition of the organization (‘performing your tasks’ is not equal to ‘making the best possible contribution to the organization’)
  • It creates silos (every job family as an island)
  • There is no ownership with the jobholder for the job content
  • It limits the opportunities to learn and have very divers experiences and often doesn’t use a spectrum of talents, because it doesn’t fit the job (but it could still fit the organization)
  • Encourages competition and ‘career pursuit’ (because of the classification and the associated reward) instead of working together and helping out where necessary.
  • It leads to a ‘not my job’ reflex instead of extra job contributions.
  • Employees are ‘advised against’ (and possibly sanctioned via the evaluation) if they start doing ‘extra things’, not included in the job description
  • People lose the flexibility to do what is most important to the organization at a certain point in time (they stick to the job list)
  • The central management will adjust jobs with ‘delay’, so that what is on paper and what is done in the field no longer correspond
  • It is not contributing to making people feel connected through a ‘shared ambition’
  • It reduces horizontal mobility byu suggesting that a lateral move is less valuable than an upwards stap on the job-ladder.
  • It can also limit vertical mobility especially when accompanied by a policy that forces people to stay a number of years in a position before being elegible for promotion.
  • It leads to things being done that nobody has been waiting for in the organization for a long time (but they are still on the to-do list)

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

What could you do differently?

If you look at ‘jobs’ with a different mindset acknowledge that job contents and priorities change quickly and nobody better (and faster) than the job holder can adapt to changing needs, a lot of the traditional practices become meaningless. It has never been about ‘do your job’, it is about ‘helping to realize our shared ambition. That starting point leads to very different practices : focus on the autonomy of job holders, build strong relationships between internal customers and suppliers, and allow job holders to find a way to contribute with their passion, energy, experience and expertise, in the best possible way.

A far from exhaustive list with some ideas:

  • Replace the ‘central creation and management of job content and job descriptions’ by JOB CRAFTING where the employee himself sits in the drivers’ seat and enters into’ contracting with his internal customers and suppliers (stakeholders) to fill (and constantly change) his job (and can be changed flexibly). Click here for more info on Job Crafting
  • Create ‘Communities of Practice’, responsible for the policy and implementation of a “practice” within the “shared ambition”. Let this network function dialogically and develop initiatives and priorities in a very flexible and emergent way. That “network” is then the place where everyone can find their best contribution and where everyone can find new projects depending on changing priorities or circumstances.
  • Do not “rank” jobs and build wage tension between “static” jobs. Alternatively, you can choose a good (and equal) basic salary for all “members of the club” and then differentiate based on contribution to the “shared ambition”. This can be done as “wages”, but you could also link this with a cafeteria plan where people can swap pay raises for other perks like extra vacation.
  • Stimulate ‘internal mobility’ not only in the sense of transition from one function to another, but also focus on flexible and temporary job enrichment, temporary assignments, projects, etc… so that the employee is exposed to very different types of challenges and realities in the organization without ‘changing jobs’.A career does not have to be ‘sequences of upward steps’, but can be a very diverse track where the ‘progress’ is indicated by more diversity, more contribution, better employability, more innovative capacity to handle new situations, etc …

Do not turn a great technician into a mediocre manager, just because it’s the only way for him to have a career and get a pay raise!!!


A limited selection of articles about jobs and job crafting. Although job crafting is becoming popular in organizations, most are not really changing their current practices in terms of job classification.

  1. Evangelia Demerouti., (2014). Design your own job through Job Crafting. European Psychologist, 19(4):237-247. LINK
  2. Michaela Schoberova., (2015). Job Crafting and Personal Development in the Workplace: Employees and Managers Co-Creating Meaningful and Productive Work in Personal Development Discussions LINK
  3. Clement Leemans., (2014) Job crafting : How can it enhance organizational performance. LINK
  4. Adam M. Grant, Yitzhak Fried, and Tina Juillerat., (2012). Work Matters: JOB DESIGN In Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. LINK

Organization Development