Why Every Employer Should Use Employee Job Descriptions

Astute employers use a job description (“JD”) to recruit, hire, inform, and shield against legal risks. Learn why the offer letter and job description combination is essential for modern day business owners.

What is a Job Description?

A job description is typically attached to an offer letter for new employees. An offer letter substitutes an employment contract and protects employers from committing to employees long-term. It may seem counter-intuitive not to give new hires an employment contract, but in today’s day and age an offer letter is more suitable since employees consistently seek new growth opportunities and employers often cycle through busy and slow times. The offer letter typically offers the potential worker a position on an “at-will” basis and also includes the proposed compensation and any other benefits. Employers should attach a job description to the offer letter so both the employer and the employee share a mutual understanding of the job expectations.

Why are Job Descriptions Important?

Job descriptions help your organization assess the skills required of a future employee, set performance expectations, provide the basis for compensation, support employee classification decisions, and help evaluate accommodations for disabilities.

  1. Recruiting. With a document that specifically sets forth the minimum job requirements, you help ensure that everyone involved in the hiring process is on the same page. Position descriptions are converted to job descriptions post-hire. The substance remains the same; the document is converted from a job advertisement to an airtight legal document.
  2. Performance Management. Once an employee comes on board, a job description gives the supervisor and employee a mutual understanding of the job expectations. For more on performance management read our article 3 Reasons for a Performance Management System.
  3. Compensation. Job descriptions are also an essential ingredient of a comprehensive compensation program. A JD provides a basis to compare market data of similar jobs.
  4. Risk Management. A well-written JD can provide a basis for a legal defense for cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In these cases, the courts look to the “essential functions” of the job. Similarly, a job description may be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Labor in determining whether a job is exempt from overtime pay under the FLSA (these are all crucial pieces included in the JD Template). For more information on employee classification read our article Have You Properly Classified Your Employees?.

What are “Essential Functions”?

It is important that only those functions that are fundamental to the position are listed under the Essential Functions and Responsibilities section. This information is critical as it could be the key defense to a lawsuit under the ADA. There are several reasons why a function could be considered essential:

  1. The position exists to perform that function. For example, an employer advertises a position for a “floating” supervisor to substitute for an absent day, night, or graveyard supervisor. Thus, this position exists in order to have someone cover for absent supervisors on any of these three shifts. Consequently, the ability to work any time of day is an essential function of the job.
  2. There are a limited number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the function can be distributed. For example, a file clerk who works in a very busy office of three may have an essential function to answer a telephone if all three employees are required to perform many different tasks.
  3. The function is highly specialized and the person in the position is hired for his or her special expertise or ability to perform it. For example, a company that wishes to expand its business in the Japanese market may hire a new sales representative who can communicate fluently in Japanese. Japanese fluency is an essential function of the job.

How do you Draft the Essential Functions and Responsibilities Section?

  1. Use action verbs (e.g., evaluates, collects, prepares, moves, communicates, etc.); do not use “assists” or “is responsible for.”
  2. Specify work objectives/outputs.
  3. Reduce hyperbole and try to use sentences that answer “what” and “why” questions rather that “how.”

Essential functions should never include the following language, “Performs other duties as assigned.” If it is an essential function, it needs to be described.

To avoid exposure under the ADA, it is critical that the job description language focuses on the results and not the methods. While performing essential functions is fundamental, one particular manner of performance is often unnecessary, unless doing otherwise would create an undue hardship. It is often possible for employees to perform the same functions in different ways. For example, it is superfluous to include “answers the telephone in a pleasant and friendly manner”; “answers the telephone and directs callers to the appropriate party” is to the point. It is safely assumed that no organization wants to deter potential callers with an unpleasant demeanor.

Do not include language that is biased toward employees with disabilities. Some examples of unbiased language are as follows:

  • “Communicates” rather than “talks” or “hears”
  • “Moves” or “transports” rather than “carries”
  • “Determines” or “identifies” rather than “sees”
  • “Operates” rather than “feels”

Related Articles:

7 Steps to Hire An Employee

Have You Properly Classified Your Employees?

5 Hiring and Firing Legal Tips for startups

Why an Employee Handbook is Really an Employer Handbook

By Jenna Macek 2/15/16

Disclaimer: Although this article may be considered advertising under applicable law and ethical rules, the information in this article is presented for informational purposes only. Nothing herein should be taken as legal advice and this content does not form an attorney-client relationship. If you would like further information, Wilkinson Mazzeo would love to hear from you, so please feel free to reach out with any questions!

Photo by Phillip Harder 

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