Job Descriptions: Help or Hindrance?

In my practice, I would like to be able to rely on job descriptions for my clients in a lot of legal cases. "Would like to"—because often the documents my clients provide are going to get them into more trouble than if they had no "job descriptions" at all. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t want my clients to have job descriptions. I do. Proper job descriptions can be key for employers in a number of areas. Here’s one employment lawyer’s wish list when it comes to job descriptions:

• Job descriptions are not employee handbooks – I don’t want to see six pages of detailed information regarding employee expectations and benefits. That goes into an employee handbook, not a job description.

• Job descriptions are not want ads – Don’t tell me what the company is "seeking," what the benefits are for the position, and what the job requires in general terms. Putting "job description" on top of the position’s want ad does not turn it into a job description that contains the protections your company needs.

• Job descriptions support the company’s position that the position should be exempt from the overtime pay requirements both with the job title and the job functions described – Don’t expect a "manager" to be found to be exempt if the position is a "manager" in title only. Make sure the job description functions actually include duties that would be considered to be exempt (or don’t classify the job as exempt from overtime pay).

• Job descriptions support the company’s requirement for a pre-employment physical – If there’s a job-related, business necessity for pre-employment physicals, it should be evident from the requirements on the job description.

• Job descriptions contain physical, mental and environmental factors about the job that can help determine whether reasonable accommodations can be made for a disabled applicant or incumbent – if the job requires excessive standing, sitting, climbing, typing, etc. say so; if there are physical/strength requirements, state it; if there are mental analytical skills necessary, indicate them; if the job requires multi-tasking, high-stress, rapidly changing directives, tolerance of high noise levels or other environmental factors, make them known.

• Job descriptions contain sufficient specificity of the expected functions and responsibilities so they can be used to performance manage the incumbent employee – If it is expected to be done, include it in the job description in a way that describes the manner expected as well. For example, receptionists don’t just "Greet guests," they "Cheerfully greet guests and ensure they are promptly routed to their destinations." Which statement on a job description will help you when the receptionist puts on a sour attitude?

• Job descriptions don’t contain sexist or ageist language, or language that presumes the person performing the job is not disabled. Does the job really require walking, or does it require mobility?

• Job descriptions contain a catch-all phrase such as "Any other tasks as assigned by management." Any of your employees refused to do something because it was "not on their job description"?

• Job descriptions should be signed by the employee – that way you can prove that they got them.

• Job descriptions should be updated when the job functions change – this should be looked out for especially after a downsizing when job functions are shifted among remaining employees.

Job descriptions are tools for management. They should be drafted with care, distributed, and used to performance manage your employees. I was recently asked if an employee could be held responsible for tasks identified in a job description the employee had never seen, that contained actions that had never before been required.

The answer is "sure"—as long as you meet with the employee to introduce the new job description, advise that the job is changing, explain the new responsibilities, and performance manage on those tasks on a going-forward basis. But hold the employee accountable for failing to have done those functions in the past? What do you think?