Companies are beyond hideous at defining actual job roles

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Human brains like stories, so I’ll start this job role odyssey with a story.

In June of 2014, I had just finished graduate school. In hindsight, that whole deal was probably a mistake — I’m thousands of dollars in debt and I don’t even work in a field related to what I studied. Oh well. You live and learn. So at the time I’m living in Minneapolis, and my wife and I are job searching. I fly down to Texas to have a final interview with this one B2B gig. I get down here, go out to lunch with my eventual boss and her boss, and we all do the dance and the spiel. This role is so essential. It’s going to be everything. So, so, so great. So big. The best. (Trump hadn’t come on the Presidential scene yet, but it felt like that.) Ultimately, I take this job and start in July.

Within about six days of having this gig, I realized it had absolutely no job role. The technical definition is “peripheral,” meaning what I did wasn’t core to the revenue-generation of the place. This is a common issue for a lot of people. I’ve seen studies that of every 5 employees, only 2 face revenue. If that’s all the top dogs care about, that means 60 percent of the company (3 in 5) is essentially irrelevant to those with influence. Is that really a way to spend the middle part of your life?

I ended up getting fired from that job. It had pockets of being cool but was never really a good fit for me or for them. Hard to argue where that starts, right? Job role.

Job role research

We’ve had research before on the importance of job role, and now we’ve got new research. This new research is from three professors, and it has fundamental flaws in execution (as all research, and life, does). Ultimately the big finding is this:

Surveying nearly 700 employees in many organizations, we found that criticality, nonsubstitutability, pervasiveness, and immediacy predicted more meaningful work, more emotional organization commitment, and less job insecurity and burnout. We found no downsides.

Their basic thesis is this: “If you want to be happy in a company, you need an essential job role there.” OK. Let’s unpack that.

Two elephants in the room here

  1. Almost everyone thinks their job is essential, because most of work is about asserting your self-worth through perception of relevance.
  2. If you have a “critical job role” at any company, that usually means you’re gonna burn out fast too. “Critical job role” tends to mean “Lots of emails at 11pm that must be answered by 11:03.”

How did we get so far afield on job role?

Ooooh, fun one. I can answer in a few parts.

  1. How we afford headcount to managers usually isn’t scientific or data-driven; it’s based on who yells the loudest.
  2. Everyone believes they are so busy, so we must need more people.
  3. We are hiring more people, as bureaucracy stats show.
  4. Bureaucracy has no real advantage (that’s why the word is viewed negatively) but …
  5. … it does allow people to make more money and not do anything, kicking real work down a larger chain.
  6. Soooo….
  7. … at many places, you hire for “bodies,” not for “job role.”
  8. This creates a lot of overlap in responsibility and confusion about who does what…
  9. … which in turn leads to lessened priority across the org.

That’s about the path right there.

Can we get better at defining job role?

Sure. But bear in mind job role has maybe 50 years left before there aren’t, well, many jobs left. But here’s the path:

Headcount: Managers can’t bellow for headcount. Come at me with numbers. This hire will do what? Why? What’s the benefit? Where’s the gap you’re filling? The hiring manager needs to get grilled on why he needs this role. No easy questions. Come at me, dog. Only the roles that the organization legitimately needs should be filled. Filling the middle just kills the bottom line. No one needs another fucking “account manager.”

Hiring process: This is usually a train wreck and I could write a book about it. For now: strip the power from the hiring manager (who will ignore the hire for five weeks anyway) and give it back to the team (who will work with the hire every day). Actually, ask the team what type of role you need in the first place!

Onboarding: Simply put, do it better. Explain the job role and the context of the organization.

Check-ins: A lot of people have nothing to do by Week 4 of a job, but their manager never checks in with them. So maybe the manager feels swamped but the new hire is like “Uh, I could help…” This has happened to me in a lot of jobs. Now sometimes people get lazy and avoid asking for work, sure. But check-ins can help with this.

Career conversations: Do this instead of performance reviews and check in on people, their job role, how they feel, what they want to take on, etc.

Basically this whole job role thing comes down to…

  1. Care about people.
  2. Think about roles and don’t just rush into them because of how busy you perceive yourself to be.
  3. Check in with people.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

What else would you add on job role?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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