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Federal and state laws do not require employers to have written job descriptions for their employees. However, many employers do because of their usefulness in many aspects of the business, from hiring to compensation to managing employee performance. While there are many practical benefits to having job descriptions, these documents also raise legal implications. A poorly drafted job description can increase litigation risks by providing evidence employees can use in wage and hour, discrimination and other employment-related lawsuits.

This is Part I of a two part blog on the importance of job descriptions in employment.

Elements of a Job Description

A job description is a document that describes certain details about a particular position. It typically contains the following elements:

  • Job title. The document may also specify a job code applicable to the employer’s internal operations, pay grade and to whom the position reports.
  • Job classification. A job description often specifies whether a job is:
  • full or part-time; or
  • a temporary, contract or regular position.
  • Duties. A job description should specify the responsibilities, duties, tasks and requirements of the job.
  • Qualifications. The qualifications needed for the job should be listed. Some employers separately list qualifications that are required versus those that are preferred. These qualification can include, for example:
  • education level;
  • any professional or other required licenses or certifications;
  • prior work experience in a particular field or type of position;
  • skills, such as proficiency in computer software or word processing systems; or
  • traits, such as attention to detail or the ability to work under time pressures.
  • Physical requirements. The job description can specify the physical requirements of the job, such as standing, sitting, lifting requirements and the physical work environment.
  • Additional information. The job description can include other information, such as location, travel requirements and working hours.

While written job descriptions are not required by law, employers covered by the Equal Pay Act (EPA) that create written job descriptions must preserve them (any other are records created in the regular course of business that contain wage payment-related information) for two years (see 29 C.F.R. § 1620.32).

Practical Benefits of Written Job Descriptions

Written job descriptions have several useful applications in a business, especially as they relate to human resources functions. Having job descriptions for every type of position can help an employer with workforce planning and reporting structures.

Clarity of Job Duties and Responsibilities

By specifying the duties and responsibilities of each type of position at a company, job descriptions help clarify:

  • The nature, type and classification of each job.
  • The qualifications, knowledge and skills needed for a particular job.
  • Reporting relationships.

Accurate job descriptions also provide clarity for the employer and its employees because they communicate to all parties what is required by a particular job.

Recruiting and Hiring

A written job description is useful in preparing an accurate job posting. By specifying the qualifications, skills and abilities a position requires, the human resource department can identify the types of candidates that may be good matches for the job. Job seekers can also review the requirements in a job posting and decide if they have most or all of the necessary skills and qualifications.

In the disability accommodation context, a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants provides evidence of the essential functions of the job.

Setting and Reviewing Compensation

A job description with a specifically stated job title and position level and a description of duties, qualifications and responsibilities helps an employer evaluate the compensation level for a particular job. This helps ensure the job is comparable to similar positions in the market, enabling the employer to be competitive and to attract good applicants and retain employees. As a job’s scope of duties may change over time, reviewing the job description and any significant additions to an employee’s original job responsibilities may also lead to increasing or otherwise adjusting the compensation for a particular position.

Managing Performance

Written job descriptions communicate to employees what their work responsibilities and duties are, providing the basis for employee performance reviews, goal setting and as applicable, development plans or salary increases. If an employee is not meeting the requirements of the job, the written job description can provide the standard for measuring performance and providing support for the decision to terminate or discipline an employee for performance issues. For more information about performance evaluations.

Legal Implications of Written Job Descriptions

The issues of the existence and content of written job descriptions arise in several different legal contexts, including:

  • Disability accommodation.
  • Religious accommodation.
  • Whether a position has been properly classified as exempt.
  • Managing an employee’s return from medical leave.
  • Discrimination claims.
  • Immigration.

Essential Functions of the Job and Accommodation Issues

A written job description becomes important when dealing with disability and religious accommodation issues in the workplace because it helps to establish a job’s essential functions. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), covered employers must provide qualified individuals with a disability with a reasonable accommodation, unless doing so poses an undue hardship.

To be a qualified individual under the ADA, an employee or applicant must:

  • Possess the skills, experience, education and other job-related requirements necessary for the position.
  • Be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

The essential functions of a job are the “fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires”. Marginal duties are not considered essential functions. A job function may be considered essential for many reasons, including:

  • The reason the position exists is to perform that function.
  • The number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the performance of the function can be distributed.
  • The function may be highly specialized so that the incumbent in the position is hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform the particular function.

Importantly, one of the types of evidence in establishing whether a particular function is essential is a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job. Therefore, it is advantageous when engaging in the interactive process with employees to already have written job descriptions in place because it provides a starting point for what job duties are considered essential. In considering accommodation options, an employer need not eliminate or reassign a job’s essential functions, though the manner and method in performing an essential function may be restructured.

Employers should note, however, while consideration is given to the employer’s judgment on what job functions are essential, the “deference is not absolute” A job descriptions should accurately reflect a job’s duties, tasks and responsibilities that an employee is “actually required” to perform.

Similarly, when religious accommodation issues arise, a written job description provides a starting point for:

  • Assessing what is required by a job.
  • How an employee or applicant can be reasonably accommodated to perform that job.

Religious accommodation issues typically arise when an employee or applicant needs a job accommodation relating to any of the following:

  • Dress code or appearance standards.
  • Grooming standards.
  • Scheduling of work hours.
  • Limitations on when or where breaks may be taken.

Employers must provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s or applicant’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless that imposes an undue hardship on the employer. Undue hardship in religious accommodation cases is measured differently from accommodation under the ADA.

The attorneys at Rosenthal Law Group are available to offer assistance to employers to review and prepare effective job descriptions and to assist in all matters relating to employment litigation.

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