Well-written job descriptions don't just help an employee understand their role and responsibilities; they also protect organizations in the event of legal action. Unfortunately, many companies are unaware of the vital role job descriptions play and are not managing them with the necessary care.
As a result, outdated and often incomplete job descriptions are the norm, and internal stakeholders are making less educated decisions that can significantly impact the health of their organization. Thankfully, controlling the process is possible when you adopt a few best practices for job descriptions.
The most significant risks of poor job descriptions
There are three main areas where poor job descriptions add additional risk for companies; hiring, employment law compliance, and returning injured employees to work.
Let's say a trucking company is interviewing for a new driver position. Company policy is that drivers secure their load with a heavy cover before beginning a route. This cover is over 50 pounds and takes great strength to position and secure.
Accurate job descriptions help candidates understand what to expect. If the description does not list the above portion of the job, but the hiring manager uses it as a reason not to select an applicant they view as not physically capable, it could look like a discriminatory action. However, a functionally accurate job description could help prove the applicant's inability to perform essential job functions and that the hiring decisions were non-discriminatory.
Employment law compliance
Many employment laws that guide employers in their dealings with job candidates and employees focus heavily on the duties, functions, and requirements listed in an employee's job description. For that reason, incomplete or inaccurate job descriptions can make these often sensitive decisions about employees and job applicants much riskier.
For example, courts lean heavily on written job descriptions in establishing the essential functions of a position when looking at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Atlas Injury Prevention Solutions and their Legal Counsel explain why good job descriptions are vital.
An employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation and, as such, if a disabled employee is unable to perform an essential function of the job, even with an accommodation, the employer is not legally required to keep the employee in that position or accommodate him or her. Because courts give deference to a written job description in establishing the essential functions of a position, it is important that an employee's job description accurately identifies the position's essential functions.
A well-written job description gives employers something to base their decisions on and can offer protection from discrimination lawsuits based on disability, age, race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Return to work
When returning an employee to work after a work-related or disability leave, supervisors and human resources compare the employee's original job demands with doctor-prescribed work restrictions. Returning employees may need new tasks or positions if their restrictions prevent them from returning to their original duties. However, poorly written, inaccurate job descriptions complicate this process.
For example, let's say an employee has a doctor prescribed 15-pound lifting restriction. If their job description does not refer to weight, or how frequently it is handled, how can their HR representative be sure the employee can return safely? In addition, an inaccurate description might say there is a 15-pound limit, but the reality is that workers regularly lift much heavier weights. Therefore, if the returning employee returns to their original position, re-injury is possible.
Well-written job descriptions reduce the guesswork and allow managers and human relations departments to make well-educated decisions about the return-to-work process.
How to write better job descriptions that protect your company
Companies that want to protect themselves must take a proactive approach and conduct regular job demand analyses for every position. Doing so will close many gaps that leave companies open for liability.
Getting insight from the people performing the work and involving them in the writing process is an excellent start. By shadowing these individuals, your company will see what a typical day is like and write better job descriptions.
Companies must inform potential hires of the essential functions and physical demands of the position they are applying for. Therefore, as the job and its demands change, so should its physical demand description.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Physical demands refer to the level and duration of physical exertion generally required to perform critical tasks in support of critical job functions, for example - sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, reaching, pushing, and pulling."
Curt DeWeese, Director at Atlas Injury Prevention, explains why this matters. "Accurate and current Physical Demand Descriptions support the hiring and return to work processes within an organization and maintain compliance with several legal standards. It is important to understand the essential functions of a job title and objectively measure the forces and postures required to perform those functions. In addition, updating the documents regularly ensures they are applicable to support job placement activity within required parameters."
Often physical demand descriptions are too vague and only include estimates or words like "may" or "sometimes". Therefore, it's essential to reduce gray areas when selecting terms and to use official definitions whenever possible. For example, The Department of Labor classifies work into three main categories, Occasional (1-33% of the shift), Frequent (34-66% of the shift), and Continuous (67-100% of the shift).
Job descriptions should use clear, unbiased, non-discriminatory language. Use caution not to set mental and physical requirements higher than necessary for the position; creating requirements that are unnecessary or above the actual job may be viewed as discriminatory.
Job descriptions should include the following:
- Work postures
- The physical demands of the weights and forces required
- The duration of exposure during a work shift
Examples of physical demands:
- Lifting and carrying 50 pounds
- Frequent bending, kneeling, reaching, and twisting
- Standing or sitting for long periods
- Climbing ladders
Finally, keeping an eye out for common legal mistakes and traps when writing job descriptions is critical. That's why working with human resources and legal professionals with the necessary knowledge to guide the process is crucial.
Many companies inadvertently expose themselves to unnecessary risk by using incomplete, inaccurate job descriptions. On the other hand, a well-written job description sets clear employee guidelines and expectations while providing businesses with valuable legal protection. Companies that understand the risk, and follow a few best practices when managing job descriptions, will be well on their way to closing these gaps.