A Guide to Writing Job Descriptions*
* Adapted from College and University Personnel Association (CUPA)
ManualAppendix A: Job Descriptions
Several basic points are relevant to the process of identifying essential
functions. To take a basic example, many job descriptions of even entry-level
service positions frequently include a requirement that the employee be
able to follow written and oral instructions. However, a rejected applicant
or employee could challenge this criterion on either impact grounds (screening
out a single person with a disability on the basis of the disability)
or on reasonable accommodation grounds. This neutral qualification standard
would tend to exclude individuals with dyslexia who have problems reading
and others with learning disabilities, hearing impairments, and some persons
with visual impairment.
An employer that used this standard to reject an individual with a disability
because of his or her inability to understand both written and oral instructions
would have to demonstrate that this qualification standard was job related
and consistent with business necessity. The same type of analysis can
be applied to any selection criterion.
The Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (EEOC) acknowledges that the use of selection
criteria that are related to an "essential function" of the
job may be consistent with business necessity but not if an individual
with a disability can satisfy the criteria with the provision of a reasonable
accommodation. Certainly the ability to understand instructions is an
essential function. The first problem, therefore, is to determine whether
the individual can understand instructions with the use of reasonable
accommodations, and then decide whether ability to understand both written
and oral instructions is essential.
An applicant with dyslexia may be able to perform the functions of the
job if he or she is given oral instructions, or on the rare occasions
where instructions are in writing, a co-worker might be able to read those
instructions. An applicant with a hearing disability may be able to follow
written instructions or, through the use of an interpreter, follow oral
instructions. An applicant with a visual disability may be able to understand
oral instructions or, through the use of reasonable accommodations, have
written instructions translated into braille or raised lettering so that
the applicant could read them. To the extent that the employer can show
that both written and oral instructions must be followed it must demonstrate
that the foregoing accommodations are not reasonable accommodations. The
applicant would be considered "qualified" if, with some accommodation,
he or she could perform all of the essential functions of the job. The
EEOC would take the position that this is an ordinary reasonable accommodation/undue
hardship problem. The EEOC says that based upon its review of Rehabilitation
Act cases, most challenges to selection criteria are in fact often resolved
by reasonable accommodations.
What if the position requires that the individual be able to hear oral
instructions because of the nature of the job, health and safety considerations,
or the fact that it would be impractical (if not impossible) to have an
interpreter on hand at all times for those special circumstances? One
example would be the position of a flight attendant. A pilot wishing to
communicate information to a flight attendant may not have the time to
employ an interpreter. This is an example where non-economic considerations
that are relevant to "undue hardship" overlap with health and
safety defenses and the general concept of business necessity. The requirement
that a flight attendant be able to hear oral instructions unassisted would
be an essential function of that job. In a campus environment, colleges
and universities might be able to require members of the grounds crew
working around heavy equipment to be able to hear beeping tones if modifications
(such as flashing lights) could not reduce the risk of injury to below
the "direct threat" level. If so, a certain level of hearing
would be an ability necessary to performing job duties safely around heavy
How do the theories of discrimination affect the job description process?
The way in which an employer characterizes the essential functions of
the job may influence the outcome of later litigation. In our flight attendant
example, the employer might wish to identify the essential function as
"responds to verbal instructions communicated from a captain or other
flight attendants, when not in a physical position to communicate through
sign language, and immediately carries out those instructions in emergency
situations." This degree of specificity of an essential function
in a job description would likely support a selection criteria that applicants
have the ability to hear instructions communicated at a certain decibel
level, without assistance. The effectiveness of hearing aids would have
to be given special consideration because of the safety risks.
What are the Essential Functions of a Job?
The essential functions of a job are those functions that an individual
who holds the position must be able to perform unaided or with a reasonable
accommodation. The basic EEOC definition is that the term essential functions
means "the fundamental job duties" of the employment position
as contrasted with "the marginal functions of the position."
The regulation provides that a job function may be considered essential
for many reasons, including but not limited to:
* The reason the position exists is to perform that function,
* There are a limited number of employees available among whom performance
of that job function can be distributed, and/or
* The function is highly specialized so that the incumbent in the position
is hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform the particular
The EEOC advises that any inquiry into whether a particular function
is essential should first focus on whether the employer actually requires
current or prior employees in the position to perform those functions.
For example, an employer might state or a job description might provide
that typing is an essential function of a position. If in fact the employer
has never required any employee in that particular position to type, that
is evidence that typing is not an essential function of that position.
Conversely, a job description might omit a function that in fact is regularly
performed by incumbents and is expected of all persons in the position.
The fact that it was not included in the job description is not critical,
but it certainly does not help the employer's case. Examples:
* If an employee spends the majority of his or her time entering data,
then entering data is clearly an essential function of the job.
* If an employer never requires security personnel to perform maintenance
duties, such a task would not be considered essential.
* If an individual is hired to catalogue new library materials received
each week, the ability to catalogue materials would be an essential job
function, since this is the only reason the position exists.
Duties Fundamental to the Job
If the incumbent or a predecessor in a position is or has been required
to perform a function, the EEOC says courts must then inquire whether
removing the function would fundamentally alter the position. If an individual
is hired to patrol facilities, the ability to observe illicit activity
and be mobile are essential functions since this is the only reason the
position exists. Removing those functions for a person with vision or
mobility impairments would fundamentally alter the job.
Any task that is performed more than ten percent of the time would likely
be considered essential. However, the EEOC explains that the percentage
of time a task is required is not the only factor considered. The EEOC
uses two examples that are important: a pilot may only spend a small percentage
of the time landing airplanes and a firefighter may only rarely be required
to carry a person unassisted from a burning building, but those are essential
tasks if there is no one else available to perform them. Similarly, a
security guard may only spend five percent of his or her time chasing
suspects, but the ability to do so is an essential function of a security
The number of employees available to perform the job function, or among
whom performance of the job function can be distributed, is also significant
because employers may be required to restructure jobs and redistribute
non-essential job duties to other employees as a reasonable accommodation.
If an employer has a relatively small number of employees for the volume
of work to be performed, functions that might not be essential if there
were a larger staff may become essential at that particular site or during
particular periods. For example, there may be times when a clerical position
in an administrative office is also required to perform the job functions
of a receptionist.
There will be situations in which a person with a disability can perform
most but not all of the normal functions of a position, but there are
no other individuals who can perform these tasks. Conversely, there may
be periods of high volume that might require that each employee be able
to perform a multitude of tasks. The EEOC recognizes that where there
is an ebb and flow of work, employers are more limited in reorganizing
their procedures or job functions during peak periods, and infrequently
used skills may be essential.
The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function is
also a relevant factor. In professional or highly skilled positions, the
employee is hired for his or her expertise to perform a specialized task,
such as a media relations specialist, an accountant, or a professor.
Evidence of Essential Functions
There is no single piece of evidence that is conclusive as to whether
a particular function is essential to a particular position. Examples
of evidence as to what functions are essential for a position include:
1. The employer's judgment as to which functions are essential;
2. Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing
applicants for the job;
3. The amount of time spent on the job performing the functions;
4. The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the functions;
5. The terms of a collective bargaining agreement;
6. The work experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or
7. The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.
One item on the EEOC's list is a form of documentary proof that will
make it easier for an employer to defend itself against charges that it
created an "essential function" after the fact in order to defend
itself in a lawsuit--written job descriptions prepared before advertising
or interviewing applicants for a job. While a written job description
is not conclusive proof if it is contradicted by other evidence of what
the job required, and while some employers may be hurt by poorly drafted
job descriptions that omit essential functions, a carefully drafted, comprehensive
job description is perhaps the best piece of documentary evidence to submit
to a court identifying the essential functions of the job.
At the same time, an outdated or incomplete job description may be worse
than none at all. If employers have yet to complete their review of essential
functions, they should seriously consider rescinding or withdrawing for
use all unreviewed job descriptions and instructing supervisors not to
use these descriptions. A description that omits essential functions or
contains indefensible criteria may create more of a risk than telling
supervisors that the organization is conducting a review of job criteria
and that all decisions regarding persons with disabilities need to be
reviewed by the ADA compliance officer.
Essential Functions and Performance Standards
Employers often distinguish the duties or functions of a job from the
proficiency, speed, or quality with which those duties and functions are
to be performed. One commonly used type of job description combines these
concepts and lists standards against which performance of the task will
be measured. Other employers separate job descriptions that identify tasks
from the setting of objectives and the evaluation of performance against
objectives. For example, in the not so distant past before word processors
and "spell check," job descriptions for clerical positions frequently
specified that a person in the position must be able to type 75 words
per minute with two spelling or typing errors or less per page. The essential
function of that job is typing and the ability to type at a certain rate
with a certain level of accuracy (quality) is a production or a performance
standard for that function. The EEOC's guidance at times combines these
concepts and refers, for example, to the essential function of performing
tasks at a particular speed.
Performance standards, including production and quality standards, are
normally considered evaluation criteria. They would be linked to essential
job functions but would not usually be included as part of the "definition"
of a job. In fact, performance standards might not even appear on a job
description unless this form was also used for performance evaluation.
However, performance standards can legitimately be included as part of
the "task" or essential function if it is the minimum performance
required of persons in that job. Levels of performance above the minimum
would then be used as evaluation criteria.
If an employer is going to rely on the ability to perform a task at a
certain speed or with a certain level of quality as a selection criterion,
the employer needs to make the measurement of this criterion as objective
as possible and then ensure uniformity in treatment between disabled and