As a consultant who has been involved with many sizes and types of organizations, I’ve seen my share of job descriptions. Some are stellar examples of how an organization can identify, define and communicate accountability and authority for moving the organization forward. Others, well, let’s just say that there are quite a few less than adequate job descriptions.  Here are three of the most common- and most damaging- mistakes organizations make when it comes to job descriptions.

No. 1: Not Having Them At All

The most fundamental mistake in job descriptions is that they just don’t exist. I have often gone into an organization as part of an assessment, asked to see the position descriptions and was told they don’t have any. In the absence of well-written, clear position descriptions, mangers are denied an essential tool for providing context and setting boundaries for their direct reports. You simply must have job descriptions. They document specific duties of the position, but more importantly, they serve to clarify accountabilities, authorities, and help set the criteria for performance evaluation. Not having them is a severe handicap that makes it more difficult for everyone in an organization.

No. 2: Collecting Dust

What good is a well-crafted position description if it’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust? The second most common mistake I see is that Human Resources has a process in place, but it’s only used in one of two scenarios: a new position needs to be created or someone needs to be found to fill a position vacancy. A job description is much more than a list of tasks. It should be seen as a living document and a tool for building understanding between a manger and subordinate managers. Regularly reviewing and discussing job descriptions often gives managers an opportunity to meet with their team members to reaffirm accountabilities and subordinates, the chance to revisit tasks and the authorities that go along with them, and to make revisions when necessary.

No. 3: Failing to Review, Evaluate and Reassess

The third mistake organizations make is not using position descriptions to their fullest potential. While they’re important for identifying tasks and setting boundaries, there’s more to it than that. I like to think of a great job description as a road map for discussion between a manager and direct reports. At least once a year, they should be sitting down, walking through the description and having a discussion for each major accountability. From the manager’s point of view, it’s the right time to review the relevance of the work to determine if it’s still important towards meeting long-term goals. From the employee’s point of view, it’s time to evaluate if they have enough authority to do the work, and enough context to make good decisions. Often, based on what has happened over the past year, accountabilities need to be eliminated or new ones created in the context of the overall job.

Position descriptions are important for defining tasks and assigning accountabilities, but more importantly, they are a tool to create critical dialogue between a manager and the manager’s direct reports about the work that needs to be done, how it is done, the resources and authority that are necessary for success, and the context for effective decision making. Take them off the shelf, brush off the dust and let your position descriptions help you be more effective as a manager.