Hiring Step One: Job Descriptions
by Patrica A. Maloney
The decisions of public employers are challenged on all fronts by employees, unions, elected officials, regulators, and attorneys. But the law preserves one decision over which public employers still have enormous discretion: employers define jobs. That apparently simple authority has enormous consequences in its wake. The authority to define a job necessarily entails who may serve, what the functions of employment will be, and when a person may be terminated. Courts will give broad deference to employers’ decisions about the functions and necessary skills and abilities that are required of workers. Unfortunately, too many employers in the public sector give little attention to developing proper job descriptions.
A job description defines the expectations for the employee and thereby provides criteria for evaluation, reward, or employer interventions. Job descriptions provide clear definitions on the scope of an employee’s role and responsibilities in an organization. The small investment in time necessary to create proper job descriptions can save a public employer a fortune, in both time and money, by minimizing disputes over workers’ functions and vastly increasing the employer’s chances of success when those disputes arise.
How then does one make a job description? The first task is to carefully collect information. An inaccurate job description can be more harmful than none at all. Careful attention must be paid to what is actually done, not what is supposed to be performed. For example, an obsolete job description might require an clerk to take shorthand dictation when in fact, no one in the organization had taken shorthand in decades. The key is to collect as much information as possible. Then and only then can one proceed with composing the description itself.
Composing a job description is neither the completion of standardized forms nor is it a creative essay on the nature of work. Job descriptions are customized to each position, but they should all share a common form and similar elements. First comes the job’s title. A title should convey a job’s functional purpose. “Clerk” conveys nothing. It could describe innumerable positions ranging from a person who places files in alphabetical order to the administrator of a large courthouse. Instead of relying on hollow categories like “clerk,” describe the person’s functional role, for example, “property liens filing clerk,” “child support applications clerk,” or “building permits clerk.” The title should convey, in a phrase, what the employee does.
The second element in all job descriptions is the purpose for the position: what is the goal to be achieved by performing the function or functions of the position? This should be a paragraph or two in length and should convey exactly why the job exists in the first place. The purpose should indicate the ultimate goal of employment. A district mechanic’s purpose is not to “fix things” but rather to be “responsible for maintaining, and optimizing district vehicles and other mechanical equipment so that such equipment is ready and able to be employed on district projects.” By indicating the functional goal of employment, the description shows employees their role in the larger organization. It should also define the scope of supervision over that employee. Is the employee directly supervised in his or her tasks or does he or she have discretion? Such decisions should be clearly indicated in the purpose section of the description. A functional description of the goals of employment also necessarily implies the essential functions of a position, because those are the functions that must be performed to achieve the goals.
The third element of a job description is a list of the essential job functions. This list should contain all those functions that an employee must be able to accomplish to effectively do his or her job. The functions should be listed in order of their relative importance and should begin with a verb that describes what is actually done by the employee rather than the end results of the job. “Processing reports” is insufficient. “Reviewing claims made in reports, investigating the bases for claims, compiling evidence supporting claims in a concise report, evaluating that evidence, and recommending district action on the claim,” would provide greater detail and understanding.
When drafting essential functions, ask yourself, if the person could not do this function, would the job be performed? If the answer is yes, then it is time to reconsider whether the function is essential. But if the answer is no, then focus on defining that function clearly so that a reader could not misunderstand what is required of an employee. Instead of writing “takes out the garbage,” write “transports, unaided, garbage barrels weighing up to fifty pounds to garbage dumpsters and empties the barrels over the top of the dumpster.” Such specificity is critically important in defining physical tasks. If an employee must demonstrate strength, explain what must be lifted, how many pounds, how often, and how far. Will an employee be expected to be flexible and push, pull, stoop, bend, twist, lift and throw weights repeatedly as is required to shovel snow.
For jobs that include contact with the public or coordination and cooperation with co-workers, it is appropriate to include essential functions such as “ability to work with others,” or “act professionally.” Special environmental concerns should be mentioned in the essential functions section if employees are exposed to extreme physical environments (e.g. blast furnace operators) or social environments (e.g. undercover police narcotics officer). By creating a comprehensive list of essential job functions, an employer can shape the work an employee does, limit the scope of collective bargaining, and avoid unpleasant disputes over whether an employee is or is not qualified to perform a job.
The Americans with Disabilities Act focuses on the employer’s determination of the essential functions of a position. Whether an employee is qualified and capable of doing a particular job will be determined in light of the essential job functions that the employer defines. Because the employer defines what these functions are, the employer can limit its liability by providing an accurate and detailed list of what the position actually demands. For instance, if an employee injures his or her back and now claims that duties which involve bending, lifting and twisting are only marginal functions that can be reassigned, a preexisting job description listing those activities as essential functions of the job will be very helpful to the employer. Under the ADA, an employee must be able to perform essential functions either with or without accommodations. But if the job description is silent, then the employer’s responsibility to the injured employee becomes a matter for factual and legal dispute. By merely providing a detailed and accurate list of the essential job functions of a position, an employer can often deter expensive and wasteful litigation.
The next section in the job description should list the minimum qualifications in terms of education, skills, experience, abilities, and licensure necessary to perform the job. These are not the essential functions of the position, rather they are the necessary prerequisites for gaining employement. This should include a list of any special skills that a person must possess before he or she can be employed. It is not a list of those skills that an individual will learn on the job. For instance, an elementary school teacher must have the proper teaching license and a computer programmer must know the relevant programming language. An employer also can require an employee to have a specific academic degree. Employers may preserve their discretion by adding at the end of the list of academic qualifications, “or an equivalent combination of training and work experience.” Sometimes necessary abilities will include personality characteristics. For example, a police dispatcher must be able to remain level headed while communicating with anguished callers. But it is important to limit personality traits to only those qualities which have a direct and specific connection to the functions of the position.
Finally, all public job descriptions should contain a notice indicating that the employer is an equal opportunity employer who, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, will provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities and inviting current and prospective employees to discuss the need for any such accommodations with management. Remember, the ADA only requires accommodations for “qualified individuals.” That means individuals who can perform the essential functions of a position and who meet the employer’s qualification standards. By defining what those essential functions and standards are, an employer can avoid lawsuits and limit his or her organization’s liability.
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