Skip navigation

Print Article16 July 2012 7:15am

 HR professionals should provide oversight and advice about position descriptions, but managers should ultimately “own” them, says HR consultant Michael Sleap.

Many people – and particularly managers – aren’t aware of the benefits of having good position descriptions (PDs) in place, he tells a webcast recorded for HRD Plus subscribers.

“The benefits aren’t well understood or well communicated, especially in organisations where PDs are seen as a bureaucratic form-filling exercise, or even a compliance exercise. The benefits and the ‘why’ tend to get lost in that message.

“So HR professionals have a really important role of trying to educate managers and employees about the benefits of PDs, and selling that into the organisation as well.”

The biggest benefit of having PDs in place is the role clarity it provides for employees, says Sleap, a principal consultant at Right Management.

“People who have role clarity are much more likely to be engaged with the work they’re doing and with their organisation, and we know that high levels of employee engagement drive better business results.

“Role clarity is something that virtually all employees are craving – to be clear on what they’re accountable for, and have that set of shared expectations with their manager – so you set people up for success when they first move into a role. But also review it on a regular basis so that those expectations that were set up when they moved into the role in the first place are still actually current.”

The next big benefit of well-drafted PDs is that they align employees’ work with the strategy of the business, Sleap says.

“That can create even further engagement for employees, because if they can see how their work fits into the overall business strategy and how their work contributes to the results of the business, then that’s going to improve their engagement levels as well.”

Further, he adds, “if [employees] understand the alignment between their role and the business strategy, they’re more likely to focus on the highest-priority work”.

Finally, PDs underpin other important people processes in an organisation. “It’s really important to get the PD right… for things like recruitment and selection, onboarding processes, performance management, and so on.

“On the performance management side of things, it can be a lot harder to write your performance objectives if you haven’t really clearly defined the accountabilities of the role in the first place.”

The costs to a business of not having an effective system for managing PDs can be great, Sleap warns.

“One of the big costs of not having position descriptions in place is underperformance… What we see in some cases is that an organisation has identified an employee is not performing to the right standard. What might then happen is the manager or the HR team goes and writes a PD.

“What that indicates is the process is around the wrong way. The fact the PD wasn’t there in the first place means there wasn’t clear and shared expectations of performance. If the PD had been there, perhaps there wouldn’t have been that performance issue detected. Really, without having a PD in place you’re exposing yourself to the risk of underperformance unnecessarily.”

It is also harder to defend unfair dismissal and other claims without a PD, he adds.

“Having an up-to-date, clearly defined and signed off position description can be a really important document to have in place.

“That can be a motivating factor for some managers, to put the work into the PDs early on, and mitigate the risks associated with things like industrial law.”

Sleap points out that most organisations would not engage a consultant for an $80,000 assignment without defining what the person is accountable for and what they need to deliver.

“If you flip that around to an ongoing employee, quite often there’s not that same thought put into what that person’s role is, what they are accountable for, and it might not be reviewed on a regular basis. There’s a lot of investment going into your employees. How can you afford not to ensure that their work is really well defined and you have role clarity in place for all of them?”

Whose job is it?

Position descriptions are similar to most other HR processes, Sleap says, and organisations should have in place an effective system to manage them.

Exactly who should write the PD tends to be a contentious issue, he notes.

“Most importantly, it needs to be a partnership between employees and their manager. That’s the most important part of the whole PD process; that’s how you get value from position descriptions. You have the employee and the manager sit down and discuss the aspects of the role, and particularly identify any areas of the role that are unclear. It’s important to identify those unclear areas early on, either for a new hire or, say, at the annual review process. It’s those areas of lack of clarity that can lead to problems down the track.”

With this established, “it doesn’t really matter who writes the PDs, as long as the discussion takes place”, he says.

It is, however, vital for line managers to “own” the final PD.

“It’s not good enough for a manager to say to the employee, ‘You go and draft your PD, write it up, and I’ll fire it off’. That’s not how you’re going to get role clarity, and it’s not how you’re going to get engagement as well.

“The manager needs to own the final product. It doesn’t mean they need to do all the work, but a manager is accountable for an employee’s performance and therefore needs to be involved all the way through.

“What HR is left to do is play an advisory role, and a quality control role, and to coach managers and employees through the process as well. They become the experts for advising and supporting, but not doing all the work for people.

“The big advantage of that is it keeps the ownership within the line, rather than PDs being owned by HR.”

Sleap outlines what a PD should – and should not – include, and how to set up an effective system for PD management, in this Click here for information about upgrading your subscription.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: