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Why You Need a Job Description Under the ADA

Employers often ignore the importance of having job descriptions. A well-written and effective job description can be a vital piece of evidence when claims or lawsuits are filed against employers. If the case involves employee performance, medical issues, disabilities or accommodations, the job description is often one of the first exhibits offered on behalf of the employer.

Job descriptions have become even more important in light of recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) which have made it easier to pursue disability discrimination claims. The question of whether an individual’s impairment is a “disability” under the ADA no longer demands “extensive analysis.” Under the amendments, it is not necessary for an employee to prove the impairment “significantly or severely” restricts a major life activity. The courts now apply a “common sense assessment” which compares the ability to perform the major life activity with that of the general population. It is much more difficult for employers to argue that an impairment does not constitute a disability under the ADA.

However, the ADA only protects disabled individuals if they can perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodation. If the individual cannot perform the essential functions, he or she is not qualified for the job and cannot recover under the ADA. Thus, deciding which functions are essential is critical in determining whether an individual is protected by the ADA.

Employers have considerable discretion in determining which functions are essential. Specifically, the ADA provides that “consideration shall be given to the employer’s judgment” and if the employer “has prepared a written job description before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job, this description shall be considered evidence of the essential functions.”

The first step to drafting an effective job description is to determine what are the essential functions.  A job duty is essential if: (1) the reason the position exists is to perform that function; (2) there are a limited number of employees available who can perform that function; and (3) the function is highly specialized requiring the worker to possess certain expertise and abilities.

The ADA does not require any specific wording to be used, however, there are a few rules employers should follow. The job description should:

  • Clearly state the title of the position and its rank and status within the Company (i.e., managerial, supervisory, clerical, janitorial, etc.).
  • List the essential functions, in this order – use an action verb, identify the task, and the expected outcome. For example, “schedules all daily maintenance and repairs to insure that business operations are not interrupted” or “lifting and positioning 50 lb. bags of product on a conveyor so the bags can be properly sealed.”
  • Specify the qualifications, education, skills and experience required. All critical skills should be identified. For example, a receptionist should have: (1) a professional and courteous manner; (2) legible handwriting if messages are taken; (3) the ability to handle multiple phone calls to provide coverage for a number of staff members; and (4) the patience and endurance to sit behind a desk all day.
  • Identify the expected physical demands for the position (e.g., must be able to lift up to 75 lbs. frequently during an 8-hour shift). Include environmental factors that may affect the position (e.g., excessive noise, high temperatures, outdoor work in rain or snow, etc.).
  • List non-essential duties that are performed infrequently. These duties should be clearly distinguished from essential functions. The ability to perform marginal functions should not be considered during the hiring process. Keep in mind that marginal functions are those functions that can be modified or even eliminated in order to accommodate a disabled worked.