Poor role clarity

How to help your employees be clear on what they are expected to do in their role.


Step 1: Learn about low role clarity

Low role clarity involves jobs where there is confusion over the specific tasks, responsibilities or expectations of an employee's role. This can occur when there is frequent change to tasks and work standards, or where important task information is not made available. Low role clarity can also occur when employees receive two different and incompatible tasks at the same time or their role overlaps with another employee or work group.

A wide range of work situations can create role confusion, such as beginning a new job, starting in a new organisation, a transfer, a new supervisor or manager or following a change in the structure of a work unit.

Lack of role clarity can lead to tension and conflict between employees.

Conversely, high role clarity happens when employees understand specifically what is expected of them, what they need to do and where their work fits in with the rest of the organization.

What are your rights and responsibilities at work?

Employers must provide and maintain a workplace that is safe and free from risks to health, including psychological health, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers are also required to ensure all employees receive necessary information, instruction, supervision and training to perform their work safely and without risks to health.

Employees have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety in the workplace, and the health and safety of others. They must also cooperate with employers to create a safe environment.

Step 2: Consult your employees

Consultation can be done in a number of ways. Depending on your workplace, it can be as simple as casually walking around your workplace having a conversation, or as formal as setting up a health and safety committee.

Good consultation has lots of benefits – it leads to better decision making and greater cooperation and trust between employers and employees, who get a better understanding of each other's views.

Consultation isn't just good practice though, it's actually a legal requirement for employers. Employers must consult with employees including health and safety representatives (if any), about matters that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect, their health and safety. This includes identifying whether remote or isolated work may be a hazard at the workplace, and working out how to eliminate or reduce the risk of it occurring. At a minimum, it must involve sharing information about an issue, giving employees reasonable opportunity to share their views on that issue, and taking those views into consideration.

Learn about your rights and responsibilities, and how best to consult

Step 3: Identify hazards and risks

A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm to a person. Think of hazards like 'situations' or 'things' in the workplace that can hurt someone, either physically or mentally. The risk is the potential of the harm actually happening.

For example, a cable on the floor is a physical hazard. The risk is being physically injured from tripping on that cable. The same applies to hazards that affect our mental health – these are known as psychosocial hazards.

Low role clarity is an example of a psychosocial hazard. Exposure to low role clarity can increase the risk to psychological health. When risks associated with low role clarity are not effectively managed, this may lead to or exacerbate psychological injuries. The risk occurs when employees aren't sure of specific tasks, their responsibilities, or what is expected of them, and this can contribute to work-related stress.

Examples of this hazard can includes tasks and jobs where there is:

  • no formal position description
  • uncertainty about or frequent changes to tasks and work standards
  • important task information that is not available to the employee
  • conflicting job roles, responsibilities or expectations, such as an employee is told one job is a priority but another manager disagrees or priorities are changed
  • poor explanation about an employee's performance objectives, accountabilities and others' expectations of their performance

Conflict can also rise when:

  • an employee has to perform a task that conflicts with their values or expectations
  • an employee is torn between two or more job demands that cannot be realistically achieved at the same time
  • there are unclear reporting lines or competing demands

Often multiple hazards can be present at the same time and can combine to increase the risk of harm occurring. For example, low role clarity, low levels of job control, and poor support from colleagues or supervisors can combine to increase the risk of harm.

Step 4: Assess the risks

A risk assessment will help you understand the risks to your employees' health and safety, and how to prioritise your efforts to manage them.

It is good practice to identify hazards, both individually and together, that are creating risks to health and safety. Once you have identified the hazards, you can assess the risk of them occurring.

Risk assessment tips

Step 5: Control the risks

A control simply means 'ways to manage' an issue. Controls are things you put in place to eliminate or reduce risks. The list could be endless, but it's really just about taking action, so far as reasonably practicable to manage the risks associated with low role clarity.

These control measures should ensure employees understand their role within the work group and the organisation, relative to their colleagues and other work groups, and what to do when expectations on different employees conflict or overlap. They should focus on how the work is designed, including clear communication of performance objectives and key role accountabilities.

Here are some ways that employers can take action (or 'implement a control') to improve role clarity and reduce role conflict:

Step 6: Share, review and improve

A safe and mentally healthy workplace needs ongoing commitment and engagement.

You want to check whether the controls you've implemented are still relevant and effective.

By sharing the outcomes of these reviews, as well as suggestions and recommendations for improvements, you can keep the conversation going. This will continue to build trust and cooperation between you and your employees. Consultation must be undertaken before making any changes to, the workplace, things used at the workplace, or the conduct of work at the workplace, which may affect employee health and safety, and these changes should be communicated to your employees.

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Disclaimer: The WorkWell Toolkit provides general information only. Please consider your specific circumstances, needs and seek appropriate professional advice.