Job descriptions are written in code. They aren’t meant to be cryptic, but to describe a job in its entirety in plain words would overwhelm (or terrify, or bore) a reader. How should I tell someone what I do all day, the roiling, ever changing mix of problem solving, writing, advising, delegating, head-banging, and discussing? In a job description that whole tangled mix is coded simply as: “program management.”

Good job descriptions provide enough detail for anyone to understand what the job really entails, but sometimes the substance is buried deep in jargon. I remember applying for my first public health jobs and wondering what this “backstopping” thing was. During interviews people told me again and again that the job’s major role was “backstopping,” and yet no one told me what “backstopping” meant (and I was too invested in looking knowledgeable to ask). It turns out that “backstopping” is kind of like “program management”: a coded word meaning to do what needs to be done at your level to make stuff work.

Code-breaking the language in a job description isn’t just about figuring out what a new job opportunity entails. Unpacking coded language is important for doing the job you have now, and coming to an understanding with your supervisor about what you should be doing, and what constitutes success. If the job is all in code, and you and your supervisor haven’t ever gone through it to make sure you are translating it in the same way, you risk misunderstanding each other at performance review time.

Here is an example. A person’s job description (just call him “Job A”) may include something like: “Independently manage reporting to project donor.” Pretty clear, right?

From Job A’s perspective this is what he does:

Every quarter for the past year and a half he has coordinated the project’s Quarterly Reports. He has gathered the information, pestered the field office for data, put it into the template, circulated it all for review, made all the edits, and then uploaded the final version to the project website. He is proactive and on-the-ball and makes sure the QR is on time, every quarter. He “independently manages reporting to project donor,” right?

From Job A’s supervisor’s perspective this is what happens:

Every quarter for the past year and a half she (the supervisor) has met with Job A two weeks before the QR was due. Together they discussed what information was most important, and what could be left out, and talked about how to use data to tell a story. A week before the report was due she reviewed it and provided comments. The day before the report was due she offered a quick quality assurance read-through. From her perspective, Job A has managed the reporting, but has not done so independently. He hasn’t met the key code word in his JD: independently.

We have two different understandings of Job A’s performance of a task.

To Job A, the word independently refers to the process of management: he can and does independently manage the process. But maybe to the supervisor, the word independently implies that a satisfactory Quarterly Report will be produced even if the supervisor wasn’t able to provide guidance: Job A can produce a donor-worthy Quarterly Report independently.

I tend to agree with the supervisor in this case (can I even take sides in a hypothetical example I have myself created? Is that fair? Maybe I set poor Job A up for failure.) If Job A would like to take on more responsibilities at work, to be promoted, to be seen as excelling, the supervisor will want to see that the work he does independently lands on her desk without need for her edits, revisions, or additions. She will want to feel confident that even if she always likes to review things like Quarterly Reports, she could go AWOL and miss the whole process and still have confidence that the Quarterly Report would be awesome. That is independently.

Have I beaten the word independently to death? Unfortunately there are a slew of other words that we use in job descriptions that are equally coded. Lead. Contribute. Assist. Support. How about “Other Duties as Assigned?”

You cannot leave the coded words in your job description in code. Break them down. Define them. And make sure you agree on their definition with the person who determines whether you are meeting expectations or not.

2 thoughts on “Code-breaking

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  1. Ah yes, “Backstopping,” aka “doing all of the things so that stuff actually happens.” 🙂 I guess they can’t put that in a job posting….


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