The ratchet effect

Tamsin Russell, 18.12.2017
We need to design realistic job descriptions
When I was asked to write a blog in response to the Salary Guidelines 2017 my first thought was of a conversation I had over 10 years ago. I was talking to a manager about a vacancy in their collections department and we were discussing the essential criteria for the job.

The manager was adamant that they needed a PhD, I wasn’t convinced. When I asked why the job needed a PhD, the answer was “because the last person had a PhD”. This type of thinking is not unusual.

Whenever a vacancy comes to light, it is good practice to review the requirements of the job. Perhaps the job or the organisation’s priorities have changed. There may have been role creep or the team’s make-up may have shifted.

Reviewing job requirements when a vacancy comes up means that we can recruit properly and help develop an organisation that is fit for purpose. However, in my experience these opportunities are rarely taken – often managers want to fill like with like and, worse, to fill a vacancy with a clone.

My point here isn’t about whether we should or shouldn’t have PhDs in some jobs. We are a knowledge-based sector and we ought to value the skills associated with adding to a body of knowledge. Some museum jobs will absolutely require a PhD either at entry or during the execution of the job.

My point is that it is views like the manager in my example above that cause the ratchet effect, where jobs that had a reasonable level of essential requirements are ratcheted up without it being an actual essential criterion.

Ratcheting up occurs in other places too. I’ve experienced managers within the sector arguing that job requirements should be based not on the actual demands of the job, but on the position that the job is deemed to enjoy in a ranking or hierarchy of different museum jobs.

Should that ever be the case? Job complexity, the number of qualifications, and the number of years’ experience are all important, but simply adding more of these to demonstrate the importance of a particular discipline doesn't help. And by doing this we are making it more difficult for those wanting to enter the sector.

Another place this occurs is in shortlisting. The sector is very attractive. Increasing numbers want to work in the sector at exactly the same time as sector shrinkage. This means we have a plethora of applicants but a dearth of positions – in other words the supply outweighs the demand.

In this situation selecting-out becomes more common – adding essential criteria that reduce the applicant pool and a manager’s short-listing task, allowing them to move directly to shred without passing review.

So what do these examples have to do with salary benchmarking?

Two of the key features of dissatisfaction with the pay in the sector are variance between sectors, where our pay doesn’t compare to the pay of other jobs that have the same requirements, and variance between experience, where the time and money it takes to gain a postgraduate qualification, or to have extensive volunteering experience, isn’t reflected in the pay for a particular job.

Both of these are partly a consequence of ratcheting up. We need to have an objective, balanced and realistic approach to job description design that only includes criteria to meet the essential and explicit job requirements. Cloning, competition and efficiency drives do not help. Nor do assumptions and bias.

Of course, it is not as simple as that – we need to look holistically and systemically at workforce progression in the museum sector. Many of the funding issues that influence workforce decisions occur outside our control. But dealing with ratcheting up is in our gift and will let us begin to change lives and develop careers.