Writing job descriptions: legal do’s and don’ts

job descriptionWell-written job descriptions supply the practical information on positions such as responsibilities, requirements and special attributes. But job descriptions also provide the language necessary to defend hiring, promotion, and transfer decisions from discrimination claims under the ADA and Title VII.

1. What are the components of a well-written job description?

A well-written job description should include the following.

  • Job title. Try to clarify the tasks and responsibilities of the job in the title. Inaccurate job titles may illegally eliminate some candidates from consideration. Overblown ones can lead to false expectations, disappointment, and discrimination claims. What to do: Consult the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles. It lists jobs by occupational groups, functions, and responsibilities, defining the principal tasks each job involves.
  • Responsibilities. Draw a distinction between general responsibilities and specific responsibilities. Example: A general responsibility would be to supervise all mailroom staff and oversee supplies. A specific responsibility would be to order, store, and distribute supplies on a timely basis.
  • Necessary skills. List only those skills that are essential to the job; a laundry list of skills that may never be used might be considered discriminatory. Examples: Must be able to lift a minimum of 30 pounds, must have good organizational skills and a strong sense of customer service. Differentiate between primary and secondary skills. You can pass over an applicant who doesn’t meet primary skill requirements, but you may face a discrimination lawsuit if you base your refusal on a secondary skill.
  • Experience required. This should be different from skills. You have the right to set an experience level (e.g., two years of hands-on performance) that may legitimately eliminate candidates who don’t meet education or skill requirements. However, you must be prepared to prove that the “experience” is essential.
  • Credentials required. Degrees and licenses are essential for certain jobs. For instance, you can require a research chemist to have an advanced degree and a truck driver to have a driver’s license. You must make sure, however, that your credential requirements are essential to job performance. Example: Requiring a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent for a fork-lift driver may not be necessary to the job.

2. What are some common traps supervisors fall into when writing job descriptions?

Below are four common traps supervisors may fall into when writing job descriptions.

  1. Describing the employee instead of the job. That’s easy to do because an employee – particularly a good one – will often leave a personal stamp on the position. If you describe a position in terms of how its previous occupant performed it, you will find yourself looking for a clone of the ex-jobholder, and that can prove to be an impossible task.
  2. Using imprecise language. Language should be direct and clear. Sentences should be short and simple. Try to avoid words like “send,” “operates,” “prepares,” “handles,” and “responsible for.” Language should emphasize the skills and purposes of the current job.
  3. Not being specific enough. Briefly, state exactly what you want the applicant to do. Incorrect: “Quality control inspectors should inspect finished products.” Correct: “Inspect nuts emerging from production process for burrs. Place nuts with visible burrs in scrap box.”
  4. Assigning the same responsibilities to two different jobs. For example, your marketing director and your credit manager could both find themselves responsible for approving credit sales. Assign the authority to one or the other, to avoid future disputes.

3. How can a job description prevent employee lawsuits?

Consider the following scenario: A job applicant who loses out on a plum position claims he/she met all the job’s qualifications. The company, on the other hand, argues that the applicant didn’t have the experience, education, or training that the job requires.

This scenario has all the makings of a discrimination lawsuit. In determining who’s right and who’s wrong, a court will typically take a close look at the job description before making its decision. Therefore, a high percentage of companies that end up on the losing end of hiring lawsuits can put the blame on inaccurate job descriptions.