Your job description matters more than you think

Modern television shows often portray offices as places of drudgery, indifference, and disinterest in work. From online to offline, we experience a range of emotions — both our own and others — about work and responsibilities there.

Writing and reviewing job descriptions is a task many managers view as a necessary evil of organizational leadership, valued somewhere alongside insurance audits and tax reviews. Most job descriptions offer little inspiration for employers or employees and are only pursued to keep human resources at bay. If you relish reading the dictionary on weekends, then you might enjoy perusing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook that provides detailed information on nearly 800 occupations, or the O*NET Resource Center, which offers data on nearly 1,000 jobs. For the rest of us, job descriptions are a workplace cloud with few silver linings.

Words that shape our work

The dullness of modern job descriptions is often portrayed by our culture through the unimaginative construction of the jobs themselves. Television, film, and even literature delight in mocking office workplaces and the people who occupy them. Cult classic and Pulitzer Prize winner, A Confederacy of Dunces (1981), by John Kennedy Tool, tells the fictional story of New Orleans-based Ignatius J. Reilly, the slothful and slovenly, yet idealistic protagonist who eventually finds work as an office assistant at Levy Pants.

Levy Pants was “… perhaps the most disreputable office that he ever entered. The naked lightbulbs that hung irregularly from the stained ceiling cast a weak yellow light upon the warped floorboards … The atmosphere of the place reminded Ignatius of his own room, and his [heart] valve agreed by opening joyfully. Ignatius prayed almost audibly that he would be accepted for the job. He was impressed and overwhelmed.”

With a personal work ethic to match his dreary new environment, Ignatius justifies his daily tardiness as an intentional effort to “… avoid that bleak first hour of the working day during which my still sluggish senses and body make every chore a penance.” By arriving late, he declares, “the work which I do perform is of a much higher quality.”

The 1999 comedy, Office Space, lampoons office work in a technology software company during the late 1990s.The film’s protagonist, Peter Gibbons, an unmotivated programmer, reflects the sentiment of many North American workers. “I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.

And more recently, the American mockumentary, The Office, spoofs a typical American workplace at the imaginary Dunder Mifflin Paper Company branch office in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the first episode, Dunder Mifflin salesman Jim Halpert is so bored describing his work that he cannot muster the energy to even finish his thought.

Although I offer satirical examples, it’s easy to imagine how work and workplaces might change when infused with greater meaning and purpose. One way to instill deeper value is to take seriously the words and ideas that animate our job descriptions.

Job descriptions provide clarity and purpose

Leaders and their teams spend significant time crafting mission, vision, and values statements, as well as the organizational charts, strategies and detailed financial budgets that support them. These documents offer long-term direction and are a vital part of our organizational leadership lexicon. They mark endpoints and waypoints, and function like the sophisticated engineering of an airplane, working to sustain flight at higher altitudes. Smart job descriptions are the aeronautics that allow for smooth takeoffs and landings. They represent the confluence of wheels up and wheels down. Well-written job descriptions provide verve for our day-to-day actions and priorities. They convey passion and purpose, bring clarity, and establish essential boundaries. An employee without a well-crafted job description is like a pilot without hydraulics.

Unfortunately, workplace theology is largely silent on this vital subject. How many leadership talks, sermons, or articles have you listened to or read on crafting job descriptions? You can probably count them on one finger. Yet, there may not be a more critical tool to reinforce the high and sacred calling of our roles and responsibilities in the workplace. Elegantly-written job descriptions have the potential to change the world one job at a time.

If you’re skeptical, consider Jesus’ self-understanding of his own day-to-day calling. At the launch of his public ministry, reading from the scroll of Isaiah[1] (a job description, in part, written eight centuries earlier), he describes the work set before him. “Proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners … recovery of sight for the blind … set the oppressed free … proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[2]

3 ways to work toward clarity in our jobs

Scripture repeatedly affirms the need for work and role clarity, and we should follow this example. Practically, what does this mean? I offer three suggestions:

Treat job descriptions as a literary genre worthy of your time and attention. Everyone is drawn to a well-told story, and effective stories include a compelling theme, plot, character development, setting, and tone. When writing job descriptions, don’t fall into a robotic compulsion, rather engage fully by addressing the following lively questions. What is this job ultimately about? What’s at stake? What opposing forces resist the protagonist or job holder? What does success look like when the role is carried out well? Where and how does the action unfold? And what spirit or attitude do I desire the jobholder to embody?

Addressing these questions can be challenging, so invite your teammates and/or employees into the process. A basic Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats Analysis (SWOT) for the job can help unearth plot and character development. Your strategic plans, vision, and mission statements can inform theme and setting. When you finish the process, you’ll have a job description that sings and stirs.

Practice making the employee an agent of change in your organization’s story. Author and business consultant Donald Miller helps companies unlock their most compelling brand narrative. Effective marketing, according to Miller, is fine storytelling, which always involves a character (your customer), who has a problem, seeks a guide (your company), which, when successful, gives the customer a plan to solve their problem by taking action.[3]

Well-crafted job descriptions work the same way. In a sense, employees are your customers — those whom you seek to serve. They want to be a part of a great story. Your mission, vision, and purpose help cement this relationship, but so also do your job descriptions. Narrate their work with passion and purpose. Invite them to be self-agentic in their work, which leads me to my last point.

As a Christian leader, use job descriptions to model the proper expectations and limits of human agency. In our culture, there’s constant confusion about what we can and should change, and what’s better left undone or delegated to someone else. Social science doesn’t necessarily help, setting up a false binary between internal and external locus of control. Those with a strong internal locus attribute success to personal effort; those with an external locus attribute success or failure to fate. This dualism excludes the mutuality of working alongside and partnering with God. Well-designed job descriptions make room for both personal agency and God’s agency — human responsibility and divine action.

The Church should enfold all of God’s people into the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world. A practical next step for workplace equippers is to further secure these values into the day-to-day commitments of employers and employees. There’s no better place to start than with well-crafted job descriptions—theological instruments that channel God’s grace into the world. If we neglect this opportunity, we’ll never safely land the plane of faith, work, and economic wisdom.


[1] See Isa. 61:1-2.

[2] See Luke 4:18-19.

[3] Donald Miller, Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017).

Topics: Immigration, Issues Facing Workers, Leadership, Meaning in Our Work, Work

About the Author

John Terrill serves as the executive director of the Stephen & Laurel Brown Foundation, which includes Upper House — a Christian study center located at the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and Dottie’s Ranch — a leadership development and spiritual retreat house located near Oregon, Wisconsin. Prior to this role, John served as director for the Center for Integrity in Business at the School of Business, Government, and Economics at Seattle Pacific University; before that, he worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA as the National Director for Professional Schools Ministries, as well as campus minister at Harvard Business School and National Director for MBA Ministry.  John currently serves as a board member for Religion News Service and Religion News Foundation, and he enjoys writing and speaking on issues related to the academy, business, faith, and culture.