Labor and Employment Law

ADA’S Reasonable Accommodation Requirement Should Make Updating Job Descriptions an “Essential Function” for Human Resources Professionals

by Ann Kontner

It seems that as Human Resources professionals we have been inundated with information about the new definition of the term "disability" under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008.  Furthermore, it has been burned into our psyche that an employer must go through an interactive process when determining if there is a "reasonable accommodation" that can be made to an employee with a disability as defined under the ADAAA.  While most companies have made changes to their ADA policies to include these recent additions to the Act, there is one major step in the ADA compliance process that may be overlooked by many employers, and that is the addition of a designation of "essential functions" into all employees' job descriptions.

Keeping Job Descriptions Current

Let's face it; HR professionals have more than enough to keep them busy for more than eight hours per day.  Therefore, despite the importance that job descriptions have in the day-to-day management of employees, the process of regularly keeping them up-to-date often gets delayed or abandoned completely as more important issues arise.  Often, once the recruitment process has been completed, job descriptions are put in a three-ring binder or an employee file and are rarely referred to until it's time to recruit for the position again.  With the changing nature of today's workforce, this can lead to a job description becoming obsolete almost as quickly as a new smart phone. Unfortunately, not keeping job descriptions up-to-date can cause serious problems should legal action be brought against a company.  For example, if you have a measure of performance that doesn't appear on the job description and a case is brought against your firm, it may be more harmful to have an outdated job description than none at all.  

The Importance of Job Descriptions

Job descriptions have always been an important part of the HR function.  They touch on virtually all aspects of the employment process: starting with the recruitment process, aiding in setting compensation levels, assessing training development needs, and, most importantly, determining if an employee is meeting performance requirements.  However, it is the designation in the ADA stating that a qualified individual with a disability is "one who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation" that has further increased the need to keep job descriptions current.

The term essential functions in this case refers to the primary job duties that a qualified individual must be able to perform, either with or without accommodation. Several factors can be considered when determining if a function can be considered "essential", such as: 

  • The reason the job exists is to perform the function;
  • There are a limited number of employees available among whom performance of the job function can be distributed;
  • The function may be highly specialized and require specific expertise or ability;
  • The amount of time the employee spends performing the function;
  • The business consequences that occur if the function is not performed;
  • Employer's judgment as to what is an essential function.

The focus when determining which elements of a job description are "essential" should be on what needs to happen when performing the duties of a position rather than how it gets done.

Bottom Line

HR Managers should make it a priority to review and update job descriptions at least one time a year and to make sure that they are current and have an "essential functions" section.  To help aid in the process, they should not feel that this responsibility lies solely in the HR Department and should recruit employees and their managers in the process, as those on the front lines have the best idea of what the duties of the position are, and what are the best means to get tasks accomplished.

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