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A client called. “Karin, I’m going to send you the job description for the new role we designed, but ignore all the HR mumbo jumbo. Just concentrate on the competencies and see if they seem right to you based on the strategy we’ve been working on.”

Game on. We were going to have the conversation that was most worth having: How do we find the right person with the aptitude for this vital job? The 25% this, 37% that of traditional job descriptions was a crap shoot at best. We needed a thinker who would work with us to be as creative as possible and build this role into more than we ever imagined.

Planning out roles and functions is vital. Pricing jobs for fair market value makes sense. But when job descriptions serve to confine, or “swim lanes” become too narrow, you’re headed into dangerous waters.

I remembered the time the union fought so hard to prevent “service reps” from doing higher paid “customer rep” work, and kept a careful watch–telling both groups to be careful not to do too much outside their “role.” Once the lawyers got involved, the higher job was eliminated, and the career path disappeared, and really great people were disappointed, and stopped trying. I was devastated to see good people with hopes of moving up crushed by the instruction to do less, because some artificial boundaries said that would help. It didn’t. It never does.

It’s not just in union jobs. Recently, I failed to convince one of my MBA students in the power of thinking beyond her current low level ” job description.” She sings opera on the side and was asked if she would like to sing at her company gala (with external players). She said only if she were paid for the gig since this is “not in her job description.”

She had a big opportunity to get noticed and to differentiate herself. She didn’t sing as a matter of principle.

As a musician myself, I get it at some level. But, I’ll also never forget the time we were  in the middle of a touching measure of a huge rehearsal and the conductor put down the baton between beats, because it was time for a union break.

Most examples are not this dramatic, and often not articulated. But in almost every company I work in I see signs of the “it’s not my job virus” gaining momentum… and the “A Players” are shooting themselves in the foot while the mediocre get by just fine.

Why Job Descriptions are Old School

I can’t claim to fully understand every circumstance, and I know there are grave situations where good people are being exploited. I’m not talking about that. What I do know is the hundreds, at this point likely thousands, of people I’ve met over the years in reasonable paying jobs, whose fear of working outside their job description absolutely damaged their careers and sabotaged their long-term earnings.

And it’s even more critical now.

We’re in a knowledge and technology economy when even lower level jobs change faster than HR can keep up.

Your job description is the skeleton–the unimaginative view of minimal requirements. Many will stop there and stay put. And that’s a tragedy.

The game changers will understand this limited view, and know that the real work is to think past the basics and add value that changes the game. In most cases the money will follow. If not, know there are plenty of companies hungry to hire people willing to change the game.

The Call to HR

Of course you need job descriptions. It’s just time to get more creative. Imagine the possibilities if every job description had the 75% skeleton as it exists today, and then 25% encouraging innovation and additional contribution?

  • Continuously seeks new ways to enhance the customer experience and shares them with peers
  • Collaborates across departments for innovative solutions to improve quality and reduce costs
  • Builds a deep bench of talent through recruiting, mentoring and organic employee development

Let’s Discuss

The old Field of Dreams idea of “build it and they will come” sometimes fails as a short-term solution. But I’ve never seen a genuine effort of a competent person giving a little more than expected over time fail.

I’m wide-open to real dialogue here. Let’s talk about this important issue.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. Alan Allard

    Karin, to answer your question of what’s riskier, as a former psychotherapist and now executive coach and life coach, I say it’s riskier to play it safe. “Employees”have been conditioned to do what they’re told or face the consequences. However, what’s stopping any employee from writing their own job description and selling the merits of it to their “boss.”?

    Of course, to do that, one has to be executing the job description they’ve been given well enough to earn the right to say, “Hey, I love what I’m doing, but I can do so much more. Let’s talk about that and see what you think.”

    Doing this takes a different mindset than that of a traditional employee. It takes an ownership mindset that allows us to be creative partners instead of “employees” and “boss.”

    To do that, we have to learn how to coach ourselves to transform our potential into tangible results, which I write about here: http://www.alanallard.com/2015/04/coach-yourself-to-greatness/

    • Karin Hurt

      Alan, Thanks so much! I’m so glad you linked to your post. It’s awesome when we all chime in to expand the conversation.

  2. Terri Klass

    Excellent article, Karin!

    Job descriptions are just that- guidelines of the job responsibilities. In the real workplace, we each need to go the extra step to demonstrate our worth and value. I also think that job descriptions are meant to evolve just as our organizations need to be nimble and flex with changes in the world.

    I have worked with many managers who grew into their promotions by taking risk and stepping outside of their job description. It never pays to not share our entire self.

    Thanks Karin! Will enjoy the dialogue about this most important and relevant topic.

    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, Thanks so much! I’ve actually done that… expanded my role so much in place that they reevaluated it and I was “promoted” to a new title and salary band for doing the work I was already doing 😉

  3. Larry Coppenrath

    When I got out of the Navy and went to work for a large defense contractor; a wise person (actually my mother who was an executive) told me, “ Larry, get very good at your job, volunteer to do things that need doing. Remember, every management type has tasks they are not good at and would love to pawn off on someone else. So guess what, “if you are seen working issues at that level you will be viewed that way and the more visibility you receive, the more opportunities will come your way. Job descriptions are the beginning, not the end of the journey.

    • Karin Hurt

      Larry, your mother was very wise. Thanks for sharing her (and your insights). Namaste.

  4. LaRae Quy

    Brilliant post, Karin!

    Job descriptions are responsible for many of the silos that teams find themselves in…it’s all about “protecting territory” rather than truly forging ahead with new ideas that might step on the toes of those clinging tightly to their little kingdom,

    Innovation also sparks change…and you know what they say about change—the only ones looking forward to it are babies getting their diapers changed….


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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