Roles and responsibilities: Why defining them is important

February 26, 2021 - 22 min read

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The benefits of defining roles and responsibilities at your organization

How do I start defining roles and responsibilities at my organization?

What is a role and how to define them in your organization

How to assign a role for your organization, team, or next project

How to define a role’s responsibilities

How to write an effective job description

The essential components of a job description and free job description template

Put it into practice

Defining roles and responsibilities enables not only finding the right person for the job but improving the employee’s experience and job satisfaction. Ultimately it supports the efficiency and effectiveness of your organization.

The benefits of defining roles and responsibilities at your organization

Whether you’re looking for a way to improve your hiring process, empower your people to do their best work, or boost operational efficiency, clearly defining your organization’s roles and responsibilities can help with all of the above. 

Improve your hiring process and empower staff

When both internal and external candidates understand a role and its corresponding responsibilities, you’re providing your entire team and hiring process a boost. Candidates will have more precise expectations of the role, and what success looks like in it, while your broader team will understand why new hires are on board, reducing friction. Defining roles and responsibilities within your organization also boosts transparency and gives new team members a clearly defined path from day one.

Waste less of your organization’s time and money

When the responsibilities attached to each role are well-defined, the organization expends less of its collective, daily output ironing out redundancies and inter-personal conflict. If the supervisory and reporting chains are just as well-defined, the organization will likewise experience less drain on its human resource management, making operational efficiency less of a lift and more of a natural output for all.

These things can be defined in advance of hiring or looking internally to fill a role. How can you find the right person for the job —  and how can talent find the right opportunity, if you can’t say for what purpose the role exists? 

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How do I start defining roles and responsibilities at my organization?

Begin with asking the question: What issue has this position been created to address?”

You have a product or service. You have waiting customers. You need to be able to serve your customers efficiently and effectively. Or maybe you need to get more customers, different types of customers. Maybe you need different types of products.

If yours is a longstanding organization, you may be looking simply to ensure that you are running a tight ship. It’s tempting to just cut and paste the existing roles, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider whether the issues and needs of the organization have changed.

If yours is a new venture, however, designing its workforce from the ground up and on the fly, the initial definition of roles and their key responsibilities within a clear chain of command is an opportunity to invest time upfront to get better clarity on what issues are most important to address and what type of person is most needed. Of course, the issues may change every six months, but the effort to define responsibilities will help set expectations and improve the likelihood of success. 

The first step is to determine what tasks are, on a daily basis, necessary to put your product or service into a customer’s hands and how those tasks are most logically grouped for individual employees’ undertaking. 

This is the process of deriving and defining roles from responsibilities.

What is a role and how to define them in your organization

It may be tempting to think of an organization, team, or project role as you would roles that actors play in a film or stage theatrical production. Jeff plays the Role of Hamlet. Janet undertakes the role of copywriter. After all, every team or project has “cast members,” as it were, right?

However, while there are great one-person acting roles — think Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale or Edward Albee’s Zoo Story — there are no great one-person organizational roles. 

Understand what work needs to get done

An organizational role is defined by its function within a larger team, whether they are officially part of a team or not. The team is defined by its function within the larger organization. 

But to define any role in your organization, first start by analyzing the collection of tasks that any single employee is responsible for to obtain the organization’s end goal: service of the customer.

As implied above, a role is a function of the aggregate tasks that one employee must logically be responsible to complete to obtain the organization’s overarching end-goal: service of customers, whether on a profit-driven or non-profit basis. 

For example, the Acme Widget Company may require the completion of the following tasks to service a customer effectively: 

  • phone answering 
  • order processing
  • customer relations
  • product and delivery complaint response 

All of these necessary tasks can logically be provided by a single person undertaking the role of—customer service representative. 

Understand how each role fits into your broader team(s)

This is an example of a set of tasks defining a specific role. Once those tasks are assigned to that organizational role, they then constitute the responsibilities of the role. 

As a member of a customer service team, reporting to a customer service manager, who may be within the organizational structure of either a marketing or human resources department, the role of customer service representative exists only within its team structure. 

The point of the role is the facilitation of communications from the customer to the organization, and then intra-departmentally within the organization itself. 

A customer service representative cannot stand alone on a stage and get anything done.

How to assign a role for your organization, team, or next project

Once the role is defined, the further challenge lies in properly assigning it to an individual employee or prospect. 

This is an area, again, where the responsibilities drive the decision-making process. 

In assigning a role, the first consideration once the role is defined is the question of the personal characteristics required to fulfill it. 

Returning to the customer service representative example above, it is easy to imagine the characteristics needed for this role: patience, verbal communication skills, problem-solving, empathy, and so on. 

These “soft skills” happen to be essential for a customer service role. They are generally essential to virtually any role, however, and should be considered first and foremost. The skill of handling an irate customer shouting over the phone is applicable to any external or internal business discussion. 

The ability to remain calm and analytical, to refuse to be shaken from problem-solving mode, is useful whether the employee is dealing with an irate customer or a challenging co-worker. 

Beyond that, the next and perhaps most obvious point of consideration is the candidate’s past experience and resume. 

Has the candidate done this sort of job before? Does the role require an essential hard skill, such as Python 2.7 programming? Does the candidate have a particular past success that might demonstrate that he or she is a great fit for the role, but past job titles don’t seem to indicate a perfect match? 

This is often “first screen” material. Hiring managers will want to take it a step further in the interview process, whether an external or internal review. 

For example, what are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses? This is a stock interview question, but it can be used for more substantive purposes than it often is. 

The key point to draw from a candidate is whether or not there is some aspect to their personality or work habit that is at odds with the overarching goal of the position. 

For example, a customer service representative shouldn’t be thin-skinned, quick to anger, or defensive. 

Consider whether the candidate will simply be a good addition to the team. Will they make the team better? This isn’t about “fit” so much as will the person find challenge and satisfaction working with the team while also bringing complementary skills and perspectives the team needs. 

For internal candidates, is there a history of unproductive friction with other colleagues? Friction and dissent can be a good thing, but it depends on the individual’s maturity in handling the inevitable disagreements or tensions around alternative perspectives or approaches. Ask the candidate directly about a time when a teammate proposed an idea or plan that contradicted their own. Listen to their language to draw out whether they felt anger or resentment — my idea has to win — or whether they saw it as an opportunity to work together — what does he see that I don’t? Look for chemistry with existing team members but don’t over-index on “fit” which can lead to homogenous teams that underperform. 

More generally, does the candidate bring something to the table that the existing team lacks? Does the candidate fill a gap? Or is there an issue of redundancy of skill-set? Is the candidate going to be able to persuade other team members as to the correct solution to a problem as the new kid on the block? 

In other words, a candidate’s weaknesses and strengths should be drawn out through historical example questioning which will reveal the answers to some or all of these questions. 

A stock question that candidates often ask in interviews is, “What issue has my position been created to address?”

This is a question the organization should already have asked of itself—and should again ask of the candidate: “What have you done in the past to address this issue that we have?” 

It is worth noting, also, that roles need not be permanent. A one-time or intermittent project may involve roles assumed by multiple people—or multiple roles assumed by a single person. 

The analysis remains the same. 

It is often useful to utilize a RACI matrix to match tasks with roles and to assign responsibilities.

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How to define a role’s responsibilities

As we've noted above, defining a role's responsibilities first requires a thorough understanding of your organization's needs and the characteristics needed by the right candidate. The next step in this process is to break down the role's discrete tasks, or responsibilities, which will help you form the role's description. 

Job or role descriptions should be specific and include not only the task itself but the required parameters of the task and any preferred means of accomplishing it. 

The descriptions should be specific and include not only the tasks required, itself but also the required parameters of the task and any preferred means of accomplishing it. By being explicit in this manner, you give candidates a sense of their work scope and how you’ll measure performance.

Explain skills and tasks required to fulfill the role successfully 

For example, an architectural firm might require interior as well as exterior or structural design. The responsibility section for an “interior design” role might read: 

  • In-house and on-site communications and meetings with clients during regular and weekend business hours regarding space use and design, including cabinet and finish sales. 
  • Design of interior finishes and development of interior finishes, concepts, and themes utilizing AutoCAD, BIM/Revit software 
  • Preparation of construction documents for interiors and architectural components, as well as presentations for client review and sales. 
  • Development of solutions to technical, design, and fixture delivery problems following established standards and codes. 

As you can see, the tasks outlined above are discrete, exhibit the combination of soft and hard skills required, and give candidates a clear understanding of their expected day-to-day responsibilities.

A few words on time-framing

Deadlines and time-framing are always important considerations in any responsibility definition as well. When writing your role descriptions, ensure that the employee taking on the role has a clear understanding of the time considerations involved and the need to communicate deadline issues to a specific reporting manager.

Example

  • Ensure that all projects are delivered on time, within scope, and within budget
  • Strong written and verbal communication skills, with the professional confidence and credibility to effectively engage and interact with senior and executive management.

Make sure to include reporting structure, if applicable 

For internal candidates, it’s important to note any reporting requirements and supervisory responsibilities that may be relevant. Communicating reporting requirements helps to minimize confusion and friction over chain-of-command issues and ensures team members are all on the same page from the beginning. If not simply assigning the role to an existing employee, the next step is to take all of the above information and craft it into a job description.

How to write an effective job description

Now that you understand how to define roles and responsibilities for your organization or project, here are some best practices that will help you compose effective job descriptions. 

Having fully defined needed responsibilities and aggregated them into specific roles, the next step if not simply assigning the role to an existing employee is to craft the information into a job description. 

Best practices for writing effective job descriptions 

  1. Format for easy reading
    Format job descriptions for easy reading and scanning. Use bullet points whenever possible and break down responsibilities and qualifications into single lines that candidates can easily scan when the description is posted online.
  2. Be specific about required skills or knowledge
    Your job descriptions It should explicitly call out specific software or other required skills for the role, as well as specific educational and certificate credentials required, and the necessary experience for a candidate to undertake this role successfully. 
  3. Be realistic about potential candidates 
    While it may be tempting to require that all candidates have a Ph.D. in a related discipline and require director-level supervisory or managerial experience at a Fortune 500 company, be sure not to “over-qualify” the position as you run the risk it will remain unfilled due to good candidates weeding themselves out because of an over-ambitious job description. 

The essential components of a job description and free job description template

To help you craft the perfect job description, we’ve compiled every essential element you’ll need to include, along with a definition and example for each element to help you get started. Once you understand all the necessary components, use the free template below as a jumping-off point to craft your descriptions. 

  • Job title: This may speak for itself, as in the customer service representative or the interior design examples above. However, if adapting an internal position for external, public posting, be sure not to provide a job title that is pure jargon or overly “fluffy,” or vague. Be sure that the job title actually conveys the nature of the job to outside candidates.  

Example: Sales Team Project Manager

  • Description: The description is a one or two-sentence “thesis” of the position, capturing the essential purpose and function of the role. This is especially useful if the job title itself is on the vague side. 

Example: The Sales Team Project Manager will be responsible for the planning, procurement, and end-to-end execution of all projects for our Sales Department.

On the other hand, if the job title is “customer service representative,” a description may be less necessary or purely perfunctory unless there is something specifically unique about this customer service representative job. 

  • Responsibilities: The list of responsibilities is the meat of the job description and should already be drafted by this point. Refine it, bullet it, break apart multi-step responsibility descriptions into separate line-items that are scannable. 

Example: 

- Assist in the definition of project scope and objectives, involving all relevant stakeholders and ensuring technical feasibility

- Ensure resource availability and allocation

- Develop a detailed project plan to monitor and track progress

  • Qualifications Required: The qualifications required to undertake the role may not be something that has been considered until this point. What has been committed to paper thus far is what needs to be done and how many people are required to do it. 

Example:

- BA/BS degree or equivalent work experience

- Minimum of 5 years of related industry experience managing moderately-sized projects and programs from start to finish within highly complex operating environments 

- You have a proven track record of on-time and high-quality project delivery

  • Reporting Structure (for internal postings): This section is not relevant for external job postings. However, for a position posted to internal candidates, a lot of trouble further down the line can be avoided by giving an otherwise interested employee the advanced opportunity to say, “No way am I going to work for Dave!” In addition, it ensures applicants have a clear understanding of who they will report to and how the role is essential to the broader team’s success. 

Example: Role reports to the Director of Sales

  • Location, salary, benefits: Many job postings don’t include this information, particularly if the position is within an industry or function in which market rates are well-known or if it’s an executive position for which compensation will be a point of serious negotiation. However, for external candidates, in particular, salary information can be crucial. If your customer service position provides excellent benefits and many other similarly posted positions don’t, you’ll attract better candidates. For non-executive job-seekers, a posting that includes no salary or benefit information is easily glossed over and ignored.

The Job Description Template: An Example

Job Title: Senior Technical Writer 

Job Description: ACME Documentation Services, a specialist in military documentation publication, seeks a creative but analytical problem-solver who can communicate complex design, manufacturing, and equipment operational workflows simply and effectively for maximum usability. 

Responsibilities: 

  • Interview SMEs for manufacturing and operational knowledge-gathering; 
  • Function within a project team providing services in support of technical manual and courseware development; 
  • Creation of documentation and technical illustrations utilizing CAD, Adobe Illustrator, Arbor Text Pro, XML editors, and web-based development applications; 
  • Communication with SMEs, team members, and client representatives to determine revision requirements and publication approval. 

Qualifications:  

  • Software proficiencies described above;
  • Familiarity with Military Documentation Standards (MIL-STD-40051 and MIL_HDBK-1222C); 
  • Familiarity with TRADOC Regulation 350-70 for training development;
  • Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience 5+ years of Technical Writing and/or training content development;
  • US Citizenship, ability to pass a background check. 

Location/Salary/Benefits: This position is located in our Sterling Heights, MI office. We offer a generous vacation and health benefits package, a retirement matching program, life insurance, and paid holidays. Salary commensurate with experience. 

How to Use the Job Description Template

A completed job description template such as this is tailored for external positing. If your position is internal, more specific supervisory information may be inserted, as well as more specific salary or grade information. 

Additionally, a copy should be inserted into the personnel file of the employee hired for the role for future appraisal purposes and should the question of responsibility allocation arise within the team at a later date. 

Put it into practice

Remember, a role is less of a label and instead descriptive of what someone does within an organization or project and defines their relationship with other employees or customers. A responsibility is a specific task for which someone in a job or project role is accountable or what they do on a day-to-day basis. 

Organizations who clearly define roles and responsibilities can simplify their hiring processes, empower their people to do better, more focused work, and help boost operational efficiency by reducing confusion and redundancies. 

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Published February 26, 2021

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