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Who's doing what? Job descriptions, organizational structure need regular review

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When was the last time your company's job descriptions and organizational structure were reviewed?

Typically, these important organizational elements aren't seen as priority items unless new leaders join the organization and look at things from fresh eyes. The result is that years will go by before problems are recognized as serious enough to take action.

Yet, job descriptions and reporting structure are essentially the backbone of organizations. Job descriptions inform employees of their tasks, how much time to spend on those tasks and who supervises their work. Reporting structures on the other hand, impact how we communicate, who we talk to, who we listen to and who has the authority to direct employees to complete specific tasks. Job descriptions and structure help to formulate where decisions are made, how teams interact, how work flows between the different functions and how services and/or products are finally made.

A poor structure can literally cripple an organization if there are too many levels of bureaucracy and/or if the structure is so fluid that each department works independently but perhaps not toward the same goals. The result could be interdepartmental leadership conflict, we versus them attitudes and the development of a highly sensitive political environment.

As well, some organizational leaders cling to the old-fashioned concept that bigger is better and they strive to lead the largest number of business units, the largest budget and the largest group of personnel. The end result is a structure that doesn't make sense. For instance, managers may not have the expertise to oversee some of their departments and therefore new ideas are crushed, highly creative employees leave and the department becomes stale and compounded with low employee morale.

At the same time, there are plenty of challenges that can arise due to misalignment of front-line jobs. Job descriptions can quickly become outdated as more work and often conflicting assignments are simply assigned to an individual without thought. Many times, the work tasks are actually outside the scope of a job. Sometimes too many tasks are assigned to an individual job and in this case incumbents become confused about priorities and may be frustrated by the demand to complete work that is beyond one's capability for one day of work.

On the other hand, many organizations suffer from "job creep." This occurs when individual employees are not held accountable to follow their job description. Thus, over time, they neglect areas of their job description that are not their favourite activities and/or they somehow manage to informally delegate these distasteful tasks to another employee and/or they simply ignore them. Reports may not be completed or files not brought up to date. In other words, the employee is doing what they want to do rather than what they are supposed to be doing.

Poor structure and poor job alignment also impacts an organization's pay structure to such an extent that many jobs will be overpaid while others will be underpaid. Overall, employees can become frustrated, disillusioned and stressed to the point of burnout. If organizational leaders don't take action to examine and alleviate these stresses, the organization's productivity and efficiency will falter.

The solution to the issue of misalignment of jobs and structure is to conduct a job analysis throughout your organization. This is definitely a time-consuming task but the end result is a thorough examination of each job, time spent on tasks, how all jobs relate to each other in the course of getting work done, who incumbents report to and whether or not they are reporting to more than one boss.

This type of in-depth review gives managers an opportunity to really understand what their employees are doing and to determine if these tasks are still appropriate for their current organization. The following job analysis items are typically included in an assessment tool:

Outline of job tasks -- incumbents are asked to describe all of the tasks they complete in their job and to identify the percentage of time spent on each task. Here, managers will be able to identify if an employee is undertaking tasks not on a job description, if time on a task is appropriate or not and if the job has too many tasks for the time allocated. In addition, the manager can determine essential versus non-essential tasks and can assess if the job title continues to be valid considering the job tasks assigned.

Reporting structure -- incumbent employees are asked to identify who they report to and for what purpose. Managers are then able to evaluate whether the reporting structure makes sense, if managers have the technical capabilities to ensure accountability and if any conflicts are creating problems for the employee.

Knowledge, skills and abilities -- this element assesses the level of prior education and work experience plus on-the-job experience and technical skills required for a particular job. This is a particularly challenging area as it requires organizations to assess the balance between incoming educational requirements versus experience on the job.

Independence of action -- this survey element allows the manager to assess the level of bureaucracy in the organization by assessing the level of autonomy and independence of action. Sometimes it is identified that individuals with management titles really do not have sufficient authority which in turn could be creating decision bottlenecks in the organization.

Nature of problems encountered -- reviewing the type of problems encountered by incumbents provides the manager with a birds-eye view of what employees tackle every day. This may identify opportunities to increase responsibility or identify the need for more systematic policies and processes. In addition, the manager may find employees may be providing solutions for which they are not qualified and/or the task is out of scope for the job description.

Supervisory responsibilities - in this case, management will be able to determine if the scope of responsibility for supervisory roles is too broad and if responsibilities assigned make sense. The survey also identifies whether or not an individual is supervising external vendors or contractors, interns or students as these require a higher level skill and influence.

Internal/external communication requirements -- who staff are communicating with also gives an interesting perspective to how people do their job. In today's world, communication by email is fast and furious, however, it isn't the number of people that's important, the issue is the purpose of the communication. Some employees deal with straightforward communication while others need to negotiate and/or influence others.

Job descriptions and management structure act as the backbone of your organization. Without an effective system, jobs will not be cohesive, reporting structures may be misaligned and, overall, the organization will not be efficient or effective. Finally, your managers and employees alike will be so frustrated that turnover will be high. When you recognize these symptoms, making the time to conduct a thorough job analysis process will provide significant short- and long-term benefits.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 H1

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