When Job Descriptions Lie: The Real Demands of Every Position
By: Jesse Sostrin, author of Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)
When an individual with the necessary skills and competencies is actively committed to a role that is designed around their team’s most urgent priorities, the potential for breakthrough performance is unmatched. The seamless alignment between talented people + vital roles is the holy grail of human capital management.
One of the reasons that this authentic alignment is elusive for so many companies is because of the unnecessary guessing game that occurs during traditional recruitment and selection processes. This guesswork is the result of the failure to expose the hidden curriculum of work®, which exists within every job description.
A hidden curriculum shows up anytime there are two simultaneous challenges where one is visible, clear, and understood and the other is concealed, ambiguous, and undefined.
For example, professional athletes master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level on the court or field of play. . . but they still have to learn how to deal with wealth, fame, and the many other challenges and distractions that come with professional sports.
Conversely, when children enter school, they must master the educational standards in their curriculum. . . but, reading, math, and science lessons do not prepare them for the peer pressure, social dynamics, and developmental challenges of youth that they inevitably face.
In the same way, there is a hidden curriculum of work® within every job description. Despite the prevalence of these unseen demands, most organizations structure their hiring processes with virtually no acknowledgment of their presence and impact.
Rather than job descriptions that simply gloss over the hidden side of work (leaving people on their own to discover them through time-consuming and expensive trial-and-error), here are three strategies that hiring managers, human resources professionals, and consultants can apply to identify the true demands of every position.
#1 Make the Job Description Concrete
For every one job description on the organization chart, there are actually two positions. First is the set of tasks and activities outlined in the standard role. The second is the set of hidden challenges each employee faces as they confront those unexpected challenges with managing change, collaborating with difficult people, navigating confusing workplace politics, and trying get their best work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands.
To make the hidden curriculum of work® more concrete, you need to expose the “job-within-the-job.” As a first step, here are six core questions that can be applied to every position. They begin at the superficial level (standard job description), then progress deeper toward to hidden side of work:
1. What Single Statement Best Describes the Role?
2. What Tasks and Activities Absorb Most of the Time?
3. What Are the Greatest Challenges That Prevent Great Performance?
4. What Single Statement Reveals the Vital Purpose of This Role to the Organization?
5. Which Contributions Will Have the Greatest Value to the Organization?
6. What Are the Hidden Challenges of Delivering This Value and Staying on Purpose?
Using a framework like this allows you to accurately drill down (below the first three questions) to the “job-within-the-job.” Once it becomes more concrete, the hidden side of work can be a pivotal part of the selection process.
#2 Make the Job Description Discussible
How can hiring managers better communicate the true nature of the job, including the nuances of their employee performance expectations? Candid conversations about the “job-within-the-job” are the starting place.
When managers communicate their performance expectations clearly and within the “realistic context” of the challenges their direct reports will face, they increase their chances of hiring effectively. With this commitment in mind, interviews could invite this level of honest exchange:
“The goal of this interview is to introduce you to the everyday tasks and activities that will become your responsibility if you are offered and choose to accept this position. Because these tasks and activities only explain part of the picture, we are going to take time to elaborate on what we feel are the true challenges of succeeding in this role. We will not only be very honest with you about what these challenges are, but we will also carefully describe the knowledge, skills, and abilities that a successful candidate needs to meet those demands…”
Using a common language to name the true challenges of work and define the “job-within-the-job” is an important move toward creating a culture of expectations, accountability, and support. There is no better way to cultivate these traits within the workforce than to hire with transparency from the start.
#3 Make the Job Description Count
Finally, in order for the above strategies to gain traction, you have to make it count.
For employees, the implications of the hidden curriculum of work® are significant. When they sit down with their manager to receive performance feedback about what they accomplished or failed to achieve, it is based on what their job description says they were supposed to do in that time frame. Their raise, promotion, and growth opportunities are all tied to these often limited, unrealistic expectations about their role, the challenges they actually faced, and the most valued contributions they made at work.
To make the job description count, there must be structural shifts in organizational systems to match the hidden realities of work. These could include re-designed job descriptions, updated recruitment and selection processes, and new promotional policies that are consistent with the hidden curriculum of work®.
Implementing changes like these can lead to bottom-line success for the organization and the virtuous cycle that follows: well-qualified employees with a clear understanding of their role, who make value-added contributions toward the team’s highest priorities, and who contribute to the long-term success of the organization.
Jesse Sostrin is author of Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.) He is a sought after consultant, writer and speaker working in the intersection of individual and organizational success. He is the Founder and President of Sostrin Consulting, a leadership and organization development firm that maintains a diverse portfolio of clients and partners, including the University of Arizona, Hyatt and Walmart. He is the author of Re-Making Communication at Work.