HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Determining Essential Job Functions

When crafting good job descriptions, one component employers need to consider is which job functions are considered essential. This is especially relevant when it comes to ensuring the employer is not discriminating against individuals with disabilities.job

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website:

“Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”

The important note here is that the individual still must be qualified to perform the job at hand. It further states: “A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question.”

It’s easy to see how important it is to clarify which job functions are truly essential. This is why employers go to great lengths to outline which job functions are essential and which are secondary. The job description is one of the main forms of documentation of this assessment.

When a function has one or more of these characteristics, it’s almost clearly an essential function (note that this list is not cumulative; it does not have to have all):

  • If the function is part of the reason the job exists, it’s likely an essential job function.
  • Generally speaking, most other employees in other roles do not perform this function.
  • The job function is highly specialized, and the expertise required to do it is a critical skill in being hired for the position.
  • If that job function were removed, the role would be significantly different.

Now, here are a few characteristics that are less clear. If the function can be described in this way, it may not actually be essential and should be evaluated more closely to determine the status:

  • A function that is typically only performed by this role but could easily be handled by some other employee if needed;
  • A function that is specific to the job but is only performed rarely and not critical; and
  • A function that is specific to the job but requires no particular skill set such that other employees could readily perform the task if needed.

Lastly, if these characteristics apply, the function is clearly not essential:

  • Marginal work, done rarely (Note that some work may be rare but essential—that’s not what we’re talking about here.)
  • Work that has little consequence on the overall job performance
  • Something that could easily be done by another person or group

Essential Job Functions: Why This Matters

If it can be shown that an individual cannot perform the essential functions of the job, even with reasonable accommodations, then that individual is not considered to be qualified for the job, and the employer has a defense against any discrimination claim that may arise from not offering that person the job.

However, if the person could perform all of the essential functions of the job (with or without reasonable accommodation) but simply could not perform all of the nonessential functions, that should not disqualify the individual from being considered. This is because it could be argued that it is reasonable to transfer nonessential functions to another individual as a reasonable accommodation.

It should be noted that the job description in question should be written before the job is posted. In other words, while it may seem obvious, the job description shouldn’t be made up on the spot to disqualify someone.

When you put it that way, it sounds clear, but some employers have added job requirements that they knew someone couldn’t do in order to make that individual seem unqualified. This, of course, will not stand up against a discrimination lawsuit.

This highlights the importance of getting updated job descriptions regularly and changing them over time as needed. This also highlights the need for employers to consider reasonable accommodations for the role before disqualifying someone.

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.