Derailing Classification System Implementation

May 2017

By Kari Mercer, Senior Consultant

Best practices.  The term was first recorded circa 1980 and refers to a procedure or set of procedures that is preferred or standard in an organization or industry.  It is a term we hear a lot these days, and as human resources professionals, it is something we seek to weave into the fabric of our classification and compensation systems However, aligning class and comp systems with best practices is seldom accomplished without encountering challenges or problems.

Establishing Best Practices

In terms of classification, best practices include establishing consistency in defining levels of work and titling those levels similarly across the agency (e.g., I, II, Senior, Supervisor, etc.) as well as using broad classifications for positions with similar duties, knowledge, ability, and qualification requirements.

These best practices not only contribute to a more efficient and effective classification system for human resources to administer, but also play an important role in employee work assignments and performance evaluation by defining for supervisors and managers the type of work assignment that is appropriate for the different levels of classifications.  For example, an entry-level employee should not be assigned a special project with multiple complex components that are outside of the normal framework of guidelines for the work because at the entry-level employees should not be expected to work as independently and with as much initiative as their journey-level counterparts.


Of course, for most human resources professionals, having a grasp on the definition of classification best practices is not as much an issue as the implementation of best practices.  It is at the point of implementation that you may feel like your train has derailed.  You have done your due diligence ensuring that individual positions within your agency have been properly studied and analyzed, identifying the bodies of work, defining the levels of work, and titling them appropriately.  You develop recommendations that are based on solid analysis and the application of best practices, but find that your progress grinds to a halt when you have a number of complaints and challenges that must be addressed prior to implementation.

Organizational Culture Comes into Play

One of the challenges that we see time and again with introducing concepts of best practices to classification systems are the nuances of organizational culture.  There are a number of reasons why employees cannot (or will not) embrace change.  The most obvious reason is fear that a change in job title or work definition may result in some sort of slowdown or complete halt of salary growth.  The fear of the potential for eventual loss of income is something easily understood and a predictable response any time changes are made within organizational systems.

A factor that is not so predictable, though, is the value placed on the job title or work definition itself.  In addition to the overall culture of the agency, there are subcultures that exist at the department, division, and even work unit level that impact the importance placed on how a job is titled and how it is defined.  In fact, many work units utilize “working titles” in place of classification titles in order to recognize different roles, skillsets, and levels of responsibility within the unit.  So what may be a simple classification retitling in order to follow best practices protocol can be interpreted as a “downgrade” of a position or an affront to incumbents and their peer groups.

So what is an HR professional to do?

While there is no simple solution, communication and objectivity cannot be overrated.  Transparency in the process and the opportunity for input goes a long way.  An interactive approach can provide the opportunity to customize, compromise, and educate without sacrificing the integrity of this critical organizational system.  Remember that employees are emotionally involved in the process because of the personal stake they have in their jobs and their role within the agency.  An objective perspective must be taken when balancing the need for an effective classification system that best serves the entire organization against the demands of organizational subcultures.

In John Lydgate’s words, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time;” however, an objective, transparent, and interactive process will gain the most stakeholder support and ultimately lead to a more expedient implementation.

Contact us to discuss the unique attributes of your own organization.

Koff & Associates