An Employer Must-Have: Good Job Descriptions

Jul 2014 28 | Posted by naomi.whatley

One of the most critical elements of a successful employer-employee relationship is the job description.  Unfortunately, a large majority of employers treat job descriptions as just another paper to help plump up the files instead of making them effective management tools.  Almost daily we are asked to assist with a problem that probably wouldn't have occurred if the employer had a good, serviceable job description in place.

It is important to identify the key parts of the position in every job description.  Such key elements include:

  • The position's title
  • The position to which this position reports
  • Detailed description of duties and responsibilities of the position
  • Specify the required qualifications and experience 
  • Specify the work schedule, including the requirement for any occasional overtime, and all other requirements of the position.

But those are only the bare bones of a good job description.  Many employers also include a narrative about the organization itself which explains its mission and its culture, thus implicitly establishing some general standards.  Good job descriptions also frequently explain how this position fits into the organization and why performance of the specified duties is important to fulfilling the organization's mission.  Every position is important to the company or agency in some way, and every employee likes to know that their contributions are important.

Every job description should be accurate and written so that it is easy to read and understand.  Job descriptions should be complete, but not over-blown--they should clearly establish the employer's expectations.  If you have employees whose primary language is something other than English, you might consider having your job descriptions translated into that other language--employees must understand what is expected of them.

But it is the failure to detail the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and requirements of the position.  A job description which contains only generalities--e.g., "maintain landscaping," or "responsible for maintaining all of the books and records of the agency," or "maintain all mechanical equipment"--are simply insufficient. Instead, the job description should detail the employer's expectations of the specific duties and responsibilities the employee is to perform.

The job description should tie those duties to the qualifications and requirements the employee must meet to hold the position.  For example, if your employee is a groundskeeper, one of his or her functions might be "trimming and weed-eating in all areas of the grounds."  The qualification for that function might be "required to stand and walk for long periods of up to two (2) hours at a time while carrying 15 pounds or more."  (Note that I used the term "function"--for ADA and other disability issues, you must establish the "essential functions" of the position."  If the position's duties require repeated standing, walking, squatting, bending--so state.  If the employee is required to routinely lift up to 30 pounds several times a day, and up to 70 pounds one a week, so state.  If the position requires sitting for long periods of time, so state.  These are the qualifications necessary to fulfill the essential functions of the position.

Why is this necessary?  First, it is only with this information that the employer can determine whether the employee can fulfill the essential functions of the position.  Second, it is only with this information that the employer and employee can have a good faith interactive discussion about whether there are any reasonable accommodations available that might help the employee to perform the essential functions of the position.  Third, it is only with this information that a doctor can make an informed decision about whether an employee can return to work after an injury or illness and what, if any, restrictions are necessary.

The need for good job descriptions frequently is demonstrated by the most unexpected and unanticipated situations.  For example, a court recently looked at a job description (among other evidence) to determine whether "regular attendance" was an essential function of the position.  In Samper v. Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the job description to determine whether regular attendance was an essential function of a neo-natal nurse.  Because the nurse's regular physical presence was necessary due to required teamwork, face-to-face interaction with patients and families, working with medical equipment combined with the difficulty of finding last-minute replacements for her, the Court found that regular attendance was, indeed, an essential function.

But the Court's opinion in Samper left no doubt that an employer can't simply put unrealistic or unnecessary requirements in a job description and have them upheld.  The clear message to the employer, then, is make your job descriptions complete and accurate, but not overblown, and don't put in qualifications or requirements that are not actually necessary or realistic.

One other message emerged from the Samper case--the necessity of enforcing an employer's reasonable policies uniformly and regularly.  In Samper the employer's policies permitted up to five (5) "unplanned absences" a year.  However, in an attempt to accommodate the nurse, the employer waived the policy and permitted her to take more than five such "unplanned absences" including many that were unrelated to her medical condition.  Under the “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” heading, the nurse argued that because the employer permitted her to take more than the five unplanned absences, her regular attendance must not have been a valid requirement of the position.  Ultimately, the Court disagreed with her, but the argument demonstrates that there are traps even for the unwary employer who tries to accommodate its employees.

Therefore, every employer should review its job descriptions, making sure that they contain detailed position duties and responsibilities, along with the reasonable qualifications and requirements that are necessary to accomplish those duties.  Job descriptions are not cast in concrete--employers should review job descriptions at least annually to ensure they still accurately reflect the duties and requirements, as well as the employer's operations.

Finally, each employee should be asked to review his or her job description, and to sign the bottom certifying that he or she has done so and that he or she understands the duties and responsibilities, the qualifications and requirements, and the employer's expectations.  Employees should be given a new job description and asked to review and acknowledge it any time it is modified.   

A good job description serves a multitude of purposes in every organization.  Every employer must make every effort to ensure that its job descriptions fulfill these purposes and anticipate and address as many potential pitfalls as possible.