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Symmetry Authors

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Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.


Job Descriptions: Living, Breathing Legal Documents

by Karolynn St-Pierre

The task of writing and revising job descriptions may sound unexciting, while at the same time be daunting. There is so much to consider—essential and nonessential functions, varied job responsibilities, experience and education requirements, etc.—creating or updating can be mind-numbing. Then throw in the legal issues to consider, including things like how to prevent discrimination and wage and hour claims, and the job can get overwhelming. 

Overwhelming or not, the task of is worth the time and energy if the work results in living, breathing documents that keep your team on track to meet an your goals and legal responsibilities. Plus, creating and updating job descriptions isn’t an impossible chore if certain principles are kept in mind.

Key elements to keep in mind, is making sure job descriptions are kept up to date and that they serve as a communication tool.  Is everything getting done or are things forgotten?  Has the job grown and now needs to be broken into two jobs?  It is the communication that is key and in the end the way to legally protect you.

A well-documented job description is a living, evolving tool that reflects the current needs of the position which continues to propel the organization forward. That means job descriptions must be continuously updated and amended as employees’ duties change.  We always encourage that the employee and their manager review the job description together at least annually.  And the best time to do that is during the performance review.

Consider this.  When you hired your right hand what were their duties?  If they were to win the lottery and not return to work, could you use the same job description to back fill the position?  Probably not.  If you decide to switch it up and move duties around to other employee’s, multiple job descriptions need to be updated.

Benefits of job description

To truly make a job description a “living, evolving” tool, it needs to include not just the duties, competencies, responsibilities, and required educational credentials, it also needs to integrate the employer’s core values so that it communicates to employees the organization’s mission and vision. In other words, if you are an organization that values Customer Service, be sure that even non-customer facing employees still need to have customer service duties in their job description.  Such a job description helps ensure behavioral accountability on the part of the employees.

Keeping job descriptions current also is vital to effective human resource planning.  In particular, job descriptions relate to the following people components:

  • Headcount. Instead of having someone leave and then replacing that person using an old job description, employers should take a look at the workforce and see if there are any gaps. Consider a workforce analysis in which the employer evaluates current resources and looks at future needs. Regardless of size, asking questions such as how many people are in each job, what’s the supervisor-employee ratio, what’s the likelihood of retirement, do the workers have the right skill set, are they trained properly, why do employees leave and where are they going, what are the recruiting needs, what job functions can be consolidated, what technology will change, and what might be outsourced. Job descriptions then can be written or amended with the answers to those questions in mind.
  • Succession planning. When considering employee needs for the future, an examination of carefully planned job descriptions can help determine what positions can be feeders to other positions through promotions or lateral moves.
  • Training and development. Job descriptions along with information from a workforce analysis can reveal what kind of training is necessary.
  • Tracking and monitoring. Frequently updated job descriptions help employers keep track of what duties are actually being done in a rapidly changing workplace. 

Legal compliance

In addition to people planning, job descriptions play a role in legal compliance. It is important to keep certain laws in mind when writing and revising job descriptions so that they can prevent wage and hour violations and discrimination claims.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has been on the hunt for employee misclassification in recent years, and job descriptions can cause or prevent problems. When a position is classified as exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime requirements, it’s important that the job description reflects that the position indeed meets the requirements for exemption and isn’t misclassified exempt when, according to the law, it should be nonexempt.

On the discrimination front, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the laws relating to job descriptions. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability as long as that person can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Since job descriptions outline the functions of each position, they make clear which functions are essential so employees and employers can tell what jobs are realistic for someone with a disability and what accommodations may be necessary.