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Reality Doesn't Have a Job Description

December 10, 1999
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The judge explained that we were potential jurors in a wrongful termination case. Because of that, the attorneys on both sides would be asking a lot of questions about our jobs, work histories, attitudes toward our employers, and so on. I suspected my chances of being chosen for the jury were somewhere between slim and nil, but I assumed the questioning would be interesting. What do employees think about work?

I didn t expect it would get interesting so quickly. The lawyers began with what I thought were the easy questions: "What s your job?" and "What s the nature of your work?" I was surprised when most of the panel found the questions tough to answer.

One woman explained she had been hired as a secretary for one executive, who subsequently left the organization. While they were looking for his replacement, she was asked to help another department. Eventually, the first executive s replacement was hired and she was asked to be his secretary, too, but retained the other duties she had taken on during the hiring process. Then another secretary went on maternity leave, and the woman assumed her work as well. That situation, too, proved to be permanent. The woman concluded, "My job description really bears no resemblance to what I actually do."

Think how much better off organizations would be if they really knew what skills the workforce had and where in the organization those skills were. Ultimately, it would make for smarter management of the workforce.

When asked about her job, another woman answered by saying, "Do you mean what they think I do, or what I really do?" One man said his organization had changed hands four times in the preceding 18 months and that he no longer even knew who he reported to. And so it went. Only a handful of the prospective jurors could easily define their jobs.

We all know how it happens. A problem presents itself and we solve it. Then another problem surfaces and we solve that. Over time, the cumulative effect of the decisions has taken us somewhere entirely different from where we intended to go. Employees seem to understand how it happens, too. There was very little anger or confusion about the mercurial nature of work; it just was. In fact, some seemed grateful to have the opportunities to do new things and acquire additional skills.

If there was any frustration, it was about the fact that so many of the changes in work tasks and responsibilities happen below the radar screen of The Powers That Be. The potential jurors felt the changes would play no part in future job assignments, salary increases and so on. In other words, while they understood the semi-random nature of workplace change, they felt the future would be entirely random.

I can t help but feel there s some truth in that assumption, and I think it s a lost opportunity. Think how much better off organizations would be if they knew—really knew—what skills the workforce had and where in the organization those skills were. That knowledge would make it easier to deploy talent when needed. It would be easier to address pay inequities, establish succession plans and even reduce turnover. Ultimately, it would make for smarter management of the workforce.

Gathering that data won t be easy, I know. Maintaining it will be tougher still. But HR stands to gain a lot by initiating an effort, particularly if supervisors and even employees themselves have responsibility for managing such knowledge.

Employees understand the reality of business today. The question is, can we use that reality to our advantage?


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