ADA & Disabilities

Essential Job Functions as a Component of ADA Compliance

Well-written job descriptions can be a key component to ADA compliance. This is because the essential functions of the job come into play when determining reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals. This connection highlights the importance of really thinking through the essential functions and keeping them updated for every position. Let’s take a look at some guidance for determining the essential functions of any role.

Determining Essential Job Functions

How do you know which functions can truly be deemed as essential?

“You need to be sure that they’re the types of tasks that absolutely must be done for the employee to accomplish the job.” Jennifer Sandberg explained in a recent BLR webinar.

In determining what is essential, ask yourself:

  • Would removing the function fundamentally alter the position?
  • Does the position exist for that function? (i.e. a proofreader must be able to proofread).
  • Are there a limited number of employees available to perform the function or among whom the function can be distributed? For example, although it may not seem to be an essential function that the file clerk answers the front desk phone, if there are limited employees to whom that function can be distributed, then this function may be essential since it cannot be easily transferred.
  • Is the function highly specialized, such that a person is being hired or employed for the specific expertise? Examples might include a CPA, a lawyer, or a surgeon. If yes, it may be easier to identify the essential functions as they relate to the specialized expertise.
  • Are there physical or mental requirements that the individual must be able to meet? Be sure to note the frequency and regularity of the physical aspects of the job such as bending, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching overhead, etc. Be sure when noting physical requirements that they truly are necessary to do the job.

    For example, is a 70 pound lifting ability appropriate? For particular jobs, such as climbing up an elevator shaft with a tool kit, it may be. “You do need to be careful that those requirements are not set in a manner that is too high, so that they become unreasonable.” Sandberg warned. In other words, don’t list it as essential if it’s not.

  • What environmental factors are relevant for inclusion? Examples include: ability to work in heat for sustained periods of time, or ability to work with particular scents such as from paint.

Finally, after you’ve used these questions to determine many of the essential functions, add those other, important aspects of the position to the job description that you assume everyone knows but which are typically unstated. These are some examples, but only use these if they are truly essential to the job in question—they may not be for some jobs!

  • Ability to work independently
  • Ability and judgment to interact and communicate appropriately with other employees, customers, and supervisor
  • Ability to be at work regularly and on time

Remember that these specific examples will not be essential functions for all jobs. For example, being at work on time may not be an essential function. It’s an essential function for a bus driver, but maybe not for a marketing department employee for the bus company. Arriving at 8:00AM versus 8:10AM matters for the bus driver, but maybe not for the marketer.

For more information on determining the essential functions of a job, order the webinar recording of “ADA-Compliant Job Descriptions: Outlining Essential Functions to Avoid Disability Discrimination Entanglements.” To register for a future webinar, visit

Jennifer Sandberg is a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP. She provides counsel regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, wage and hour issues, the Family and Medical Leave Act, harassment, discrimination, garnishment, drug testing, and other federal and state laws and regulations affecting employment.