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Role Ambiguity: How It Impacts Employee Retention and How to Avoid It

Role Ambiguity: How It Impacts Employee Retention and How to Avoid It



What is Role Ambiguity?

Role ambiguity occurs when an employee is not given a clear job description; there aren’t defined objectives for the role and the responsibility breakdown is vague. The employee is left confused and uncertain how to most effectively do their job and may exert energy completing insignificant tasks and managing numerous responsibilities that don’t align with their intended goals or job title. 


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How Role Ambiguity Impacts Employee Retention Rates

An employee experiencing job ambiguity will be at a loss for direction, unsure of their core responsibilities. Since they are pulled in many different directions, the result is often underperformance and lack of motivation. 

Some serious consequences of role ambiguity include:

1. Low productivity level. Feeling unorganized and having unclear responsibilities can lead to unnecessary excess stress, causing a drop in productivity. 

2. Overall job dissatisfaction. When there is no clear direction of job responsibilities, it can be very challenging to feel any degree of value and satisfaction in one’s role. The employee can often be perceived as underperforming, even when they feel as though they’re completing a lot of work (just the “wrong” work), leading to frustration and job dissatisfaction. 

3. Absenteeism. Due to dissatisfaction in their role, the employee may take days off from work, well beyond what would be considered acceptable. You can check BerniePortal’s glossary page for more information on absenteeism.

4. Resignation of the employee. Ultimately, role ambiguity can lead to an employee deciding it’s best to quit in pursuit of a job where they have clear direction and feel valued in their role. 


How To Avoid Role Ambiguity 

When an employee is being recruited, there should be a very clear job description. To understand how to define roles and responsibilities for a job, check out our blog: How to Write a Job Description To Attract Top Talent

However, a clear job description is only the first step. The follow-through is critical. To assure that role ambiguity is avoided, here are some additional steps to take: 

  • Devise an effective onboarding experience, including a 30/60/90 day plan. This will create role clarity for the employee early on in their role. 

  • Schedule weekly 1:1 meetings between managers and their direct reports. These meetings will serve as a system for regular feedback and priority breakdowns. These 1:1 meeting notes can be documented in a performance management feature.

  • Identify skills gaps. Role ambiguity is sometimes derived from the lack of necessary skills on a team. To make up for the lack of skills, other team members often are required to fill those gaps. For instance, let’s say you hire Jane as a copywriter on the marketing team. Months later, there’s a request for there to be an updated lead generation email campaign each quarter, in addition to a weekly newsletter to populate the newest content. Jane had only ever written blogs and copy for social media posts prior to this request, but she is the best one to fill this need.

    In situations like these, make sure to update role expectations and potentially compensation, if the employee is now required to take on additional responsibilities that warrant a pay increase. However, if the employee does not feel they have the skills to fill in the gap, or are not interested in doing so, then you may need to look for other options or hire another employee. 

  • Eliminate overlap between roles. Role ambiguity can also stem from more than one employee having similar roles. Maybe your marketing team has a copywriter and a content writer, which can have overlap of responsibilities. As a result, it can become unclear who should be handling certain tasks. They may even argue over who does what. Make sure to establish these role discrepancies when bringing on a new employee to avoid these issues. If there are projects that they should work on together, clarify that when assigning it. 

Additional Resources

You can stay informed, educated, and up to date with important HR topics using BerniePortal’s comprehensive resources:

  • BernieU—free online HR courses, approved for SHRM and HRCI recertification credit
  • BerniePortal Blog—a one-stop shop for HR industry news
  • HR Glossary—featuring the most common HR terms, acronyms, and compliance
  • Resource Library—essential guides covering a comprehensive list of HR topics
  • HR Party of One—our popular YouTube series and podcast, covering emerging HR trends and enduring HR topics

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