Understanding Job Roles

The first assessed assignment for my Year 1 BSc students on the Labour and Management
Course contains the question:

“Conflict at work arises because employees’ rights and responsibilities are not properly defined. To what extent do you agree with this statement?”

My students often grapple with this essay, displaying confusion over what constitutes ‘rights’ and what constitutes ‘responsibilities’ in the workplace. A recent essay pointed out that the contract of employment details the worker’s rights, and that the job description details the worker’s responsibilities. That is quite a pertinent observation from a relatively young student. What the student failed to grasp, however, was the problems which are inherent in job descriptions, and this made me think of the question which I always ask when talking about performance management systems: “When did you last read your own job description?” Frequently, the response is embarrassed silence.

People do not use their job descriptions as job aids because they are not created to work as job aids. They are frequently written by the HR Group and presented to line management, much like tablets of stone from on high. Worse, HR fashion often creates more confusion. I knew one multinational company which embraced ‘core competencies’ some years ago. The HR Group was given the task of coming up with a portfolio of core competencies, which they duly did. It contained broad areas such as ‘Leadership’ and ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Customer Focus’, with each broken down into a number of different constituent parts – a total of eight areas and forty six different things which employees needed to pay attention to.

How did this work in the performance management process? Well, do you know what a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ looks like? Faced with such an overwhelming and confusing series of objectives and measurements, the reaction is pretty much too simply do nothing to attract the adverse attention of the boss and hope that things work out OK.

By contrast, another company settled on three things: ‘Excellent Performance’, ‘Teamwork’ and ‘Customer Orientation – things which people could understand, relate to, and use to take appropriate action. This would help solve all those performance problems – in theory. In practice, it did not. It failed to produce the desired results because the line management structure was weak (no clear lines of authority, and the tendency for the sales ‘star’ to over step his authority) and because ‘managers’ had a poor grasp of their role in the performance management process, and specifically in the process of effective people and performance development.

So, just giving the correct tools to the Organisation is unlikely to help, if managers are not supported and coached in the way the tools must be used.

September 17, 2008

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