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The Position Description: A Measure to Manage Employees and Your Organization

This article originally ran in the November/December 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. To read more articles from that print issue, click on Archive in your menu and search for December 2011.

Don Busi

Many medium-sized and large for-profit and not-for-profit organizations use position descriptions to document duties and responsibilities of employees and managers. A position description is also a form of control essential to identifying skills and knowledges required. Furthermore, often the position description constitutes the official documentation for determining the “salary level” of a position/employee. This is especially true in the public sector where basic salary is often a function of some formal job evaluation system. Position descriptions are most often relied upon in the public sector to establish labor costs and are an integral part of a formal job evaluation system.

An article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer recounts the frustration of the Cuyahoga County Executive who was angered at how out of date and disorganized secretarial positions were. The documentation was so lacking that the budget-strapped county was prepared to spend $200,000 to hire consultants to clean-up the mess so that the new county government could begin the task of eliminating waste and duplication. The irony is that tax-payers had to “waste” good money before the real clean-up could begin.

As most are aware, the throwing of good money after bad is at all levels of government. At the federal level, the General Accounting Office in March released a report on program duplication. Such reports are an attempt to energize the public sector, whether at the federal, state or local levels, to revamp service delivery while reducing costs.

Public sector executives, managers and supervisors have become enervated to these expected periodic calls for productivity and efficiency. They have “saluted” and doggedly learned, trained and then implemented “zero-based budgeting,” Vice-President’s Gore’s GPRA, NSPS, etc. and new performance appraisal system after new performance appraisal system. To the private sector and the general public, it seems little progress has been gained for all the effort over the years.

Public sector management can get a good picture of government’s effectiveness and efficiency through currently available information. Public sector executives and managers need to use the existing controls provided by the “simple” position description and job evaluation system in their organizations to assess the use and effectiveness of human capital.

Position Description is Public Sector Contract
Unlike in a small private company, some kind of formal job evaluation system is usually functioning in the public sector organization. The owner of a small, local company, with few employees, can choose whether or not to “document” the duties and responsibilities of his/her employees. Chances are, the owner (and employees) remembers who is responsible for what. Furthermore, pay is probably established by the “going rate.” In contrast, large public employers, whether at the city, county, state, or federal level, usually resort to some kind of “human resource information system” that documents and controls the duties and responsibilities of their employees–union or non-union.

More often than not, public entities tend to be large, at least larger than a small business of 5-10 employees, and public entities tend to have layers of supervision, while a small business is under one owner. So the needs for transparency, visibility, and accountability are different. Furthermore, in large public organizations, it is not unusual that a number of employees are employed doing the same kind of work–assigned to the same set of duties and responsibilities. (This, by the way, does occur in the private sector.) Therefore, some kind of formal documentation system, with written position descriptions and a job evaluation system is needed to control what’s being done and to track costs.

Of course, there are other legal and social reasons to have a formal job evaluation system in any organization, whether the organization is private or public: To ensure Fair Labor Standards provisions, to ensure equal pay for equal work and to ensure the right skills, knowledges, and abilities are recruited and hired. In large organizations, it just makes sense to document what employees are doing.

In great part, position descriptions delineate what a public organization does and what the human capital of that public entity are doing (or supposed to be doing). Position descriptions provide valuable information on the public entity’s mission and program at the lowest level of the organization–the employee. Position descriptions provide information on the deliverable products and deliverable services, and they tie the entity’s products/services to labor costs and are one of the best ways to ensure effective and efficient use of human costs.

The foundation of any job evaluation system in the public sector rests upon the position description, and while it is often disparaged, it is a valuable management tool. The position description can come in several forms (or formats), but basically it is a brief description of the duties and responsibilities of a position. The same position description could be used for several employees; many employees might be paying invoices or administering contracts or preparing financial reports.

In the federal sector, most federal supervisors must certify the essentiality and the accuracy of a position before a vacant position is recruited and filled. Almost no federal job should be filled without the formal declaration by an accountable management official that there is work to be done and that the work to be done is accurately described in the position description. In effect, the position description is a contract (an obligation document) to use public monies, with the promise that such duties will be performed.

The use of position descriptions, and more broadly the use of a job evaluation system, is only effective if the controls are continually active. A job evaluation system, established with numerous position descriptions, covering hundreds or thousands of employees (and their related costs), is not effective with just initial controls. So the certification that often occurs at the federal level is an initial control, and one must assume valid at that point in time. After someone is hired, stuff happens–workload increases, workload decreases, the mix of workload changes, different processes evolve (technology), and laws are modified and new laws passed. A big impact is an employee’s ability to perform; his/her performance can be satisfactory or need improvement. Assignments may change. The first line supervisor must react to all of these factors. There is little formal periodic re-assessment after the initial certification prior to recruitment or promotion.

Position Audit Program as Tool for Efficiency
In the public sector, if executives and managers want to ensure employees are performing to their fullest, top management must initiate a continuous audit program to periodically and to regularly review the accuracy and essentiality of the position description to the actual duties and responsibilities performed by an employee. This continuous position audit program should be a of a sampling of positions (employees).

In the federal sector, the need for such subsequent control follow-up and periodic review is encouraged but not mandated by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). So each federal department or agency is on their own. There is no current requirement by OPM for agencies to report the number of job audits of encumbered positions and the results of those audits.

In the past such random job audits of encumbered positions resulted in the identification of waste and inefficiencies. As mentioned previously, workload changes and performance problems appear or evolve over time. An audit of an employee’s actual duties and responsibilities can show divergent results when compared with the position description. Some employees perform duties and responsibilities consistent with the level of work described in their position descriptions, while other employees are working a a level that is below their salary or pay grade. Such problems will not be corrected by another “new” performance appraisal process.

Why is there no push to do these job audits? One can only surmise the many reasons, and there would be many. But in whose best interest is it to do these audits? It appears that the only requests to perform a job audit of a position comes from the employee who feels that he or she is working at a higher level than documented in his/her position description.

Government executives and managers need to be proactive. I do not think that instituting a job audit program will correct all the problems with public waste and inefficiency, but one would bet that such audit efforts will go far to ensure respect for the public manager.

Don Busi is currently a part-time instructor at a local two-year colleges near Cleveland, OH. A retired Department of Defense and Office of Personnel Management (US CSC) employee: 20 years in financial management and 10 years in personnel management. Served as chief, classification and pay for 5 years in Cleveland with the DoD. Email: [email protected]

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About Don Busi

Don Busi is currently a part-time
instructor at a local two-year college near Cleveland, OH. A retired
Department of Defense and Office of Personnel Management (US CSC)
employee: 20 years in financial management and 10 years in personnel
management. Served as chief, classification and pay for 5 years in
Cleveland with the DoD.

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