By Nancy Doucette
"Creating job descriptions isn't an all or nothing proposition . . . It's a 'let's get going' process . . . Don't wait to do it until you get everyone's job description ready . . . It's that 'everyone' that slows progress."
--Virginia Bates, VMB Associates, Inc., Melrose, Massachusetts
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series focusing on innovative, but commonsense approaches to managing employees. Part 1, which appeared in the July issue, examined the positive results that can occur when an agency establishes a consistent approach for testing prospective employees. In this second part, we'll learn from agency executives and an industry consultant how creating concise job descriptions can facilitate productive performance reviews and minimize turnover.
It wasn't feeling a lot like Christmas in early June--even in Buffalo, New York, unofficial snow capital of the region, but Cheryl Byrne was already feeling behind in her planning for the office holiday party in December. Cheryl is human resources manager for Lawley Service, Inc., headquartered in Buffalo, with eight locations around the state. "We have 180 employees," she points out, "so the team that arranges the holiday party needs to start early." Holiday party planning falls under the "other duties as assigned" category of Cheryl's job description, she explains with a laugh.
Unexpected--and therefore undefined--tasks can also fall under the heading of "other duties as assigned." Suppose there's a disaster that requires more staff to handle a deluge of claim calls from customers, or there's a policy checking backlog that needs to be eliminated. The last thing you want to hear is, "That's not my job."
According to industry consultant Virginia Bates, precise, concise job descriptions put an end to the possibility of hearing "that's not my job and the other silliness that creates employee friction . . . Job descriptions minimize interpersonal issues and make management's job easier, enabling managers and supervisors to focus on business accountabilities, not interpersonal conflict." Virginia offers agencies, brokerages and carriers management, technology and marketing strategies through her consulting practice, VMB Associates, Inc., which is located in Melrose, Massachusetts.
Lawley Service, which has been one of Virginia's clients for a number of years, redid all of its job descriptions a year ago after she completed her organizational and operational review of the agency. Cheryl spearheads the pulling together of the job descriptions. The traditional CSR position was split into account manager and account technician functions. Workflows were revamped and work was redistributed to accommodate the split in responsibilities. Cheryl reports that the agency is currently redefining some of the job descriptions. "It's a continuous improvement process. You don't put these things in place and then walk away for 10 years."
Additionally, Cheryl points out, job descriptions are necessary in order to adequately review people's performance. Job descriptions can also prove invaluable should the agency be involved in some type of employment action. "If you've dismissed someone or disciplined someone for poor performance, you have to be able to define (a) what the expected performance was and (b) where the deficiencies were. Having a specific job description is essential to that."
Rose and Kiernan, Inc., based in East Greenbush, New York, has also been working with Virginia for a number of years. Because of growth and acquisitions (the agency now has 150 employees and 12 locations), the firm had a backlog in policy checking and technical work. She suggested they create a SWAT team of sorts to break up that logjam. What resulted was somewhat surprising, Virginia recalls. "They had their senior marketers and agency principals working with their account technicians to policy check, correct things with companies, invoice policies and get them out in the mail. Agency principals were working side by side with the account techs on rotating shifts to get that work done. And to make it even more amazing--all those principals knew how to use the computer to invoice."
And while the principals were happy when the project was complete, Virginia points out there were additional benefits: (a) The clients got their policies and the agency's cash flow was maintained. (b) And, just as important, the account techs realized their job was valued and the principals acknowledged that the job wasn't an easy one. "To see your boss sitting next to you working just as hard as you are is a very fulfilling feeling. It's hard to leave an agency like that and go anywhere else."
Job descriptions don't restrict people so they never step out of their role, Virginia says. Rather, job descriptions clarify for people what they do and they know that when they're making an exception, they're doing it for a reason. And then they go back to their roles. But at least they know what those roles are, and in a crisis everyone does something outside the ordinary.
Clearly, job descriptions need to do more than simply say, "be nice to customers" or "respond to clients' needs." Virginia contends that job descriptions need to define what the job is and as such, they need to be accountability-based--citing specific results that the individual who holds that job is supposed to attain. She offers clients a job description/performance review form that is divided into four columns: (1) accountability/desired result; (2) service standard; (3) report/measure; and (4) performance review.
The job description/performance review form makes the performance review process simple, Virginia says. "It gives clarity. Everyone's clear about what's expected. Everyone's clear about whether it happened. So it takes all the stress out of the performance review. It replaces that stress with planning what we really want this person to accomplish."
Both Lawley Service and Rose and Kiernan conduct their performance reviews once a year. Lawley Service reviews its staff in January, Cheryl explains, because the pay for performance bonus is based on the score that comes out of the review. She says Lawley Service has modified the job description/performance review form to include a column for employee self-evaluation. Employees do their self-evaluation first, then the supervisor completes the supervisory rating. The review, however, shouldn't reveal anything surprising to either side. Throughout the year, supervisors should be identifying problem areas, encouraging and rewarding people, Cheryl points out.
Fran Bartlett, senior vice president at Rose and Kiernan, oversees internal operations for the agency's 12 locations. She explains that the agency reviews its staff at the end of April to coincide with the agency's fiscal year. Each employee is reviewed by two individuals. The direct supervisor writes the "first review." For instance, the personal lines team leader would conduct a personal lines CSR's review. The person to whom the team leader reports also signs off on the review. So, the employee's direct manager and the manager's boss sign every review. Once that two-step process is complete, the review is given to the employee.
Job descriptions are important in any agency--not just the larger firms. In fact, Virginia maintains that job descriptions are essential in smaller agencies because there are so many things to do and not that many people to do them. "It better be clear who's supposed to do what, or you're not going to do things--ending up with legal and marketplace problems," she says.
But before an organization can zero in on the areas of accountability for employees, the organization needs to have a job description of its own. In other words, the organization must have a business plan. This requires the agency principal to think clearly about what he or she wants the agency to achieve. "In order to achieve something, you have to define it," Virginia observes. "And when you define it, that enables you to identify the steps that will help you get there." If the person at the top isn't clear on the agency's goals, the rest of the staff isn't going to know either. Lacking that direction from the top, staff people tend to make up their own agendas ... and they're not in sync with each other ... in fact, she says, they're generally in conflict with one another.
She points out that the business plan doesn't have to be a tome--it can be a page long--but the various tasks must be well defined. From there, the tasks can be fit into the various job descriptions. "Take all the individual job description accountabilities and they should add up to the agency doing what it wants to do, getting to where it wants to be."
Taking the first step
So the first step in creating job descriptions is for the agency to decide what its specific practices and procedures are because the job descriptions should be compatible and in sync with the workflow of the agency. Defining accountabilities is pretty straightforward after that, Virginia says.
And when it's time to start creating the specific job descriptions, Virginia recommends starting with the principal(s) and working through the rest of the agency positions. The principal keeps those tasks that only the principal can do and the other tasks are allocated to the lowest paid competent level. She explains that it's not advisable for a principal to do a job that a commercial lines account manager could do. If the principal is bogged down doing jobs that some other person should be doing, the critical "principal only" tasks may not be getting done.
Similarly, if the personal lines CSR is doing a task that the receptionist could do competently, the job should be shifted. Tasks should be assigned based on skill and experience level.
"Agencies shouldn't feel that job descriptions are an all or nothing proposition," Virginia advises. "This is a 'let's get going' process. You'll eventually get everyone. But if you wait to do it until you get everyone's job description ready ... it's that 'everyone' that stops progress."
"Everyone" does in fact have a job description at Rose and Kiernan--from the CEO to the person in the mailroom. The job description was written especially for them, or for the group in which they work. Fran says given the agency's growth and acquisitions, the firm has been hiring new employees as well as acquiring employees when an acquisition occurs. The combined job description/performance review form works well in either case.
"Our staff is diverse," she explains. "We have employees sitting in a branch in a small town in upstate New York and employees in the second largest city in New York [Buffalo]." So the job descriptions need to be precise and concise. But she says they're also "living, breathing documents." Their vitality is the result of regular input that Fran receives during staff meetings. She says the discussion will often include the numbers of transactions or the standards by which the individuals are evaluated. "They're the people doing the work. They know what works and what doesn't work. This gives them a say in how their department is formulated," she notes. So, when it's appropriate, the enhancements that are recommended in the staff meetings are incorporated in the job description for the following year. This input helps everyone in the branch offices feel part of the larger organization.
A byproduct of the job description/performance review process is an enhanced career path for employees, resulting in reduced turnover. Virginia explains it's because people can tell from the accountabilities and the performance review mechanism that there are rewards for accomplishments that tie back into the success of the agency in proportion to the individual's success. So they see there's a financial reward not only for success but also for growth within the organization because different job descriptions will have different compensation ranges.
"People feel satisfied and they feel like they can succeed," Virginia says. "They feel as if the organization's success is part of their success."
In Part 3 of this series, we'll examine training within the agency--from establishing a formal "trainee" position to establishing an internal "university" to enhance basic skills. *