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How to Write Job Descriptions That Mean Something

Do you have a job description? As a CEO, the only one I had was "build value." But I remember writing a lot of JDs for my team. Looking back, most of them were a waste of time. They existed either to help managers fire under-performers or to arbitrate in territorial disputes.

Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania studied the job description of a hospital janitor. It was full of functional detail about replenishing store cupboards, mopping floors, and disposing of waste. It said nothing about human interactions. Yet the most valuable work the janitors did, Schwartz says, was all about people. When a janitor stopped mopping the floor because a patient was practicing walking, or mopped the floor twice because a visiting parent hadn't witnessed it the first time around, the janitor was contributing meaningfully to patient care. That's where the value of his job lay, both for the hospital and for the janitor: in the moral quality of human relationships.

Most job descriptions (or performance contracts) are all about actions, not people. They emphasize intellectual and functional activity. And, by and large, that is how most managers hire new recruits: for their expertise and technical ability. But as we've seen in the meltdown of the banking sector, technical brilliance isn't nearly enough. What organizations need is employees who manifest what Aristotle called moral will and moral skill: the ability to do a great job in a way that respects individuals and the society we all inhabit.

As an entrepreneur, I've always been pretty allergic to paperwork, and when required to write job descriptions, I invariably raced through them. Looking back, I now see that I wasted the chance to articulate what my company stood for. I would have done better to look at the job from the customers' perspective -- what did their interaction with my company tell them about us? -- or from my employees' perspective: what was it about the business that would make them want to recruit their friends?

But who, I wonder, takes the time to do that? What do your company's job descriptions focus on: what the work is, or what it means?

Photo courtesy Flickr user matsuyuki, CC 2.0