5 lame excuses in HR for bad job descriptions

I’ve been in UK for two years now and frankly, I find the HR documentation here well. . . what euphemism shall I use  .  . . undeveloped.

From time to time, I’ve been sufficiently unwise to comment – and these are the excuses I get, sometimes concurrently, a dazzling tightrope of logic.

Excuse 1 : We are too chaotic

Turnover is so high that we cannot keep up with the documentation.  So we issue poor documentation or none at all.

Excuse 2: We are learning

Nobody knows what will be done in the job.

Excuse 3 : Not made here

This is the system we have worked out.  That must count for something.

Excuse 4 : We can fudge it

Well, we will put in a clause “And any other task required by the Head of Department”.  90% of work comes under that clause.

Excuse 5 : If we are sufficiently muddled, we can shift the blame

I know I didn’t mention it but it is on page 56 or in the middle paragraph of an email addressed to someone else and copied to you.

Beginner’s dilemma

I remember years ago, one of my former students asked to see me at my house on a Saturday morning.  He had been given a rough talking to be a line manager at work and he didn’t really understand what he was doing wrong.  “I just took him some forms to fill in,” he said,”and the guy laid in to me”.

My reply was to ask whether he was a high-paid messenger boy.  Did the organization need a graduate to move forms from one point in the organization to another?

What the organization needed was an intelligent, thoughtful, informed person to ask the line manager questions in the line manager’s language, translate into HR-speak, fill in the form and return it to the line manager for signing.

And the line manager should look at it and look up with a shine in his eyes, and say: “Oh, that’s what this is for!”

The line manager should feel that scales have fallen from their eyes. They should see the work they do as clearly as if someone wiped the mist off the mirror and they saw themselves for the first time.

Example of good work

This morning I stumbled over this excellent example of a job description, and given the quality of job descriptions that I am seeing daily, I thought it would be good to flag it up and link to it.

Job description of a website owner

It says clearly

  • what the person’s day looks like
  • what the job holder does
  • the decisions they make

It says clearly how each task contributes to

  • Work for the day
  • Long term planning

Get the organization organized

And now you might say, I would like to but this place is just not that organized –  the work changes from day-to-day.

Then that is your first job. To get it organized.

Actually, the organization is probably more organized than you think.  Wipe the mist from the mirror and let them see themselves.

Just write down what they do all day and sort it out.  It may take you a few hours but everything else in HR flows from there.

When the job description is clear, it is easy to

  • communicate with job applicants
  • select people who can and want to do the work (without discriminating)
  • pay equitably
  • train & develop
  • coach & manage performance.

In short, you cannot do your job until you have worked out what people do on the job.

And writing it down allows us to check that we have a common understanding.

That is our job.  To be the mirror of the organization so that we develop a common understanding and confidence in each other.

Collective efficacy, believing that the next person is competent, adds 10% to the value of an organization – and a 10% that cannot be copied by your competitor.  No money in the world can buy collective efficacy.  It comes from the continual work of developing  confidence in each other.

And we cannot be confident of each other when we each have a different idea about what we are supposed to be doing.

It’s as simple as that.

How did the story end?

Well, my former student’s eyes lit up as the penny dropped.  He went back to work and started delivering value to his line managers.

The firm did fold eventually (but not because of him).  Indeed, they kept him on to manage the redundancies.   When he was done, he joined Ernst & Young as a Consultant.  Then he moved to a bank and after that he started his own firm of consultants.

I hope you enjoy the job description. It is a fine example of good work.

PS I’ll tell you where the 10% comes from if you want.

CEO and Me

What do HR Managers do?

What do HR Managers do?  Who do IT Managers do?  What do any staff managers and trusted subordinates contribute to the leadership of an organization?

What does the boss do and what should subordinates and staff managers do?

While I have been in the UK, I have been struck by the confusion and discomfort that local HR practitioners feel over their role in the management team.

Learn from Henry Kissinger about advising the boss

People who do feel under appreciated, or who are looking for better ways to describe their role, may enjoy this piece by Henry Kissinger, where he describes the relationships between the members of the ‘security team’ at the White House – the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary for Defense and the National Security Adviser.

The contribution of the National Security Adviser seems to mirror my understanding of the HR function.

  • “to ensure that no policy fails for reasons that could have been foreseen but were not and that no opportunity is missed for lack of foresight.”
  • “takes care that the president is given all relevant options and that the execution of policy [by various departments] reflects the spirit of the original decision.”
  • “insisting — if necessary — on additional or more complete options or on more precision in execution”

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

Do you think HR could ever be elegant?

Elegance and HR?

Mmm, that sounds like asking me to cook a souffle.

Today, two things happened today.  First, someone on LinkedIn asked why policy and procedures are important in HR.  As he had asked twice before, I took him to be a student who was trying to figure out how to structure an essay and decided to help him out on what is after all an not well articulated topic.

Then, I had dealings with an HR Department, and I despaire.  I had to put my CV through them on their form.   This form is well over 10 pages long and with all the additional information they want, it could well stretch to 20 pages.  It was in Word, not a wiki, so very difficult to manage, and eventually, approaching exhaustion, I printed it out.  I have an HP printer (another sad story) and the pages tend to shoot up all over the office.  Guess what, they weren’t numbered!!  Deary me – what is it with HR?

So, what did I say to the ‘student’?  I suggested his question is what policy and procedures do we need?

Documents I expect to see in a well-run HR office

1. Strategy (a detailed file with a short synopsis for circulation)

  • The nature of our industry
    • How demand for labor arises in the firm and what moderates demand – technology, short term volatility, etc.
    • The supply of labor in our industry (occupational structures & training)
  • Our firm’s competitive position
    • Current and desired
    • Our firm’s strategy for reaching its desired position
  • HR strategy
    • Desired internal labor market strategy and corresponding relationship with the external labor market
    • Specific features that result: training, supervision style, etc.
    • Include leadership and consultation style that we need and why (see 4)

2. The soft behaviors essential to be competitive in our business (detailed trail of the research and analysis and short engaging persuasive summary for distribution)

  • Talk to all stakeholders about their tacit knowledge
  • Drill down to the link between the behavior they espouse and the link to competitiveness in this industry
  • Tell people what behaviors are required in what situations and why

3. The policy and procedures manual

  • The purpose of a policy and procedures manual is to reduce administration.
  • Is it clear to anyone at a glance what they have to do?
    • Test all p&p with the most impatient and the most analytical.
    • Anything debatable does not belong here.
  • Some people have a gift for simplicity and elegance.  Ask them to review the P&P.

4. Methods of adjudication

  • An organization is an arena of conflict and bargaining.  Ultimately the test of HR is the quality of its refereeing.
  • Define the decision making processes in the organization and processes of consultation required for each decision.
  • Ensure that everyone is able to argue a position vigorously and robustly without recrimination, and that everyone affected by a decision has an equal opportunity to do so.
  • Ultimately the added margin that our people bring to the firm comes from these moments.  Because they can be contentious, we need to manage them well.

5. Review of HR Strategy, Policy and Procedures (a schedule and last year’s file)

  • When is HR Strategy reviewed and in conjunction with what other review processes?
  • When is HR implementation reviewed and how?
  • How can any  member of the organization prompt a review?

Keep it thorough but simple

Forms that are over 10 pages long without page numbers just don’t meet the simplicity principle.  Sorry!

I have worked in a place which had a standard contract for all employees (couple of blanks to fill in).  We had one form to fill in each year (it did require 6 copies oddly).  Our annual report went via the department/division/organization report.

As a general rule the organization ran on five principles:

a) Put your proposal in writing before we discuss it.

b) Confine yourself to one side including the routing (we ask A to make a decision for onward submission to B to . . .).

c) Brief everyone prior to the meeting. At the meeting we will discuss the proposal together and decide whether to back you or not.

d) If you cannot speak succinctly to your paper at the meeting and answer questions crisply, we will ask to withdraw your proposal.  By all means, come back when you have your thoughts together.

e) No decision is ever, ever made retrospectively.

What a simple life.  Other organizations may need another list of principles to match their organization.  But they can be simple. Indeed they should be simple and they will be simple if you have done the background work on what you do and why!