Generic or Non-generic Job Descriptions

February 1, 1995
Charlie Jones, an adjunct professor of compensation management and labor relations at Boston University, says:
Have you ever heard the comment, "It’s not my job"? I have, and when I heard it, I wondered how the person knew it wasn’t his or her job. Did someone tell the individual, or did the person learn of the responsibilities through a job description? If so, what kind of description was it?

I believe the generic approach provides a better management tool than the specific approach because it’s more flexible and easy to maintain.

Fortunately, several software and hardware products currently on the market provide generic descriptions to assist companies in creating job descriptions. One of the oldest, "The Dictionary of Occupational Titles," is a book that was originally published by the Department of Labor in 1949; it has since been published in newer editions. The descriptions usually require some tailoring to fit the individual organization, but such commercial products are a starting point and a viable, cost-effective alternative.

With a generic job description, one gains flexibility because the description addresses expectations and accountabilities and doesn’t get into the details of how a task should be performed. As more and more companies try to improve their products and services, generic descriptions keep employees focused on results rather than tasks.

Generic job descriptions also are much easier to maintain because they don’t have to be modified for minor changes in tasks. They can be used to cover employees performing the same function in different departments.

Although each organization is different and has its own approach to job descriptions, the purpose of a job description essentially is to serve as a communications vehicle. It should be the vehicle used to help describe a job to an applicant; facilitate communication between supervisors and employees concerning an employee’s role in the organization; outline the principal expectations and specific accountabilities associated with the position and form the basis for performance reviews; and identify work flow.

Glenn Nosworthy, an industrial psychologist with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, says:
The amount of work required to write useful job descriptions has led some HR professionals to turn to generic cut-and-paste descriptions as an alternative. But this practice doesn’t come without a cost.

Because job descriptions are used for a variety of functions, sometimes you may require more detail. A job description not founded on a systematic job analysis within the host organization can’t provide all the necessary information on the context and specifics of the job.

There also are important legal considerations. Courts in the United States and Canada have repeatedly ruled that personnel systems must be supported by job analysis. Consequently, using generic job descriptions in lieu of job analysis may place an organization in a legally vulnerable position.

In conducting job analysis sessions for one of North America’s largest police services, we’ve found that job descriptions often don’t reflect the actual requirements. On many occasions, we’ve gathered groups of job incumbents with identical job titles and descriptions only to find the nature of their work varied substantially. Given that generic job descriptions tend to use job titles as their starting point, this approach gives us much cause for concern.

There are no quick fixes in HR management. If an organization wants to have an effective, legally-defensible human resources system, there’s no substitute for a systematic job analysis. While job analysis can be time-consuming, its multiple benefits more than justify the investment. With generic cut-and-paste job descriptions, on the other hand, you get what you pay for: potentially erroneous or misrepresentative information. In today’s litigious climate, this isn’t a risk that organizations can afford to take.

Personnel Journal, February 1996, Vol. 75, No. 1, p. 102.