Job Descriptions: 5 Myths About Essential Functions

Job Descriptions
by Stephen Bruce, PhD, PHR

Chances are, your boss isn’t screaming, “Where are those job descriptions?” But come court time, come EEOC investigation time, it’s “What? You didn’t update the job descriptions?”

A new year is starting.  That means it’s time to review those job descriptions again. And as always, the focus is on the essential functions decision. We’ve collected 5 myths of essential functions to help you with this updating task. So before you start, take a look at our five myths—and then, dive in.

The 5 Myths of Essential Functions

We’ve identified five myths we hear about essential functions; see if any of these are destroying the usefulness of your job descriptions.

Myth #1: Don’t bother—the courts don’t have to accept your essential function decisions.

Truth: While it is true that courts don’t have to accept your job descriptions’ lists of essential functions, the fact is that judges and juries generally do give deference to the employer’s decisions regarding essential functions, if the job description was responsibly prepared prior to the situation the court is addressing.

Myth #2: Why do it now? You can just put together a description when you need it.

Truth: If you create the job description after the fact, the court won’t give it much credence. They will assume—reasonably, we must admit—that you tailored it to fit your arguments in the case. (An after-the-fact job description “won’t pass the smell test,” one expert noted.)

Myth #3: Once you decide a task is an essential function, you can assume that the task is an essential function at all your facilities.

Truth: Essentialness often depends on the circumstances. Two employees could have the exact same duty at different departments, and for one, the duty would be essential and for the other, it would not. For example, take the person who has to answer the phone during the receptionist’s lunch hour. In an office with 100 administrative employees, that’s hardly an essential function, but if there is only one person who can do this, then it’s essential.


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Myth #4: To be an essential function, a task or duty has to take a significant portion of the employee’s time.

Truth: The percentage of time is a factor, but a duty doesn’t have to be significant in terms of hours. If it’s an important task that only the person in this job can do, it’s essential.

For example, say you have one position that requires an employee to be certified in a certain specialty. If some weekly test has to be performed by a certified specialist, then that testing would be an essential function even if it only takes 15 minutes a week. (Again, if you have a dozen such specialists, the testing would probably not be an essential function—it would not be a hardship to get another certified specialist to handle the chore.)

Myth #5: Physical requirements can be ignored for jobs that don’t involve heavy lifting.

Truth: Most people do think of physical requirements as lifting, but many other requirements should be spelled out. For example:

  • Exposure to cold
  • Exposure to heat
  • Exposure to noise
  • Work in confined spaces
  • Work in high places
  • Extensive travel to customer locations

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Good Job Descriptions—Gotta Have Them

All that aside, you do need good job descriptions, with essential functions carefully delineated. You need them for hiring, for appraisal and discipline, for establishing exemptions from FLSA, and for a dozen other things.

Are your job descriptions ready? To weather an investigation from the feds? To stand up in court?

Next issue we’ll talk about what NOT to put in a job description and tell you about a job description resource that our editors strongly recommend.

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