Key considerations when updating a job description

Keeping job descriptions up-to-date is a key task that supports your company’s recruiting efforts, performance management, and legal compliance. While there is no technical requirement that employers have or provide job descriptions under federal or most state laws, not having up-to-date job descriptions is asking for trouble.

Updating job descriptions is a common step when recruiting new hires, but many HR professionals or small business leaders overlook the need to update job descriptions regularly for current team members. The specific duties and requirements of a job role often gradually shift over time, which is why it’s necessary to update job descriptions regularly. Since job descriptions play a key role in compliance with the ADA, FLSA, FMLA, and other key labor laws, you shouldn’t overlook your yearly job description updates.

What to include in a job description

Whether you’re creating a new job description or updating an existing one, these three components must be included.

Essential functions of the job

List out the job duties and expectations that are fundamental to the job. This will give candidates an idea of what they would be doing in the role. List out all the must-have tasks and competencies that you need an employee to complete if hired for this position. The “nice-to-haves” or potential added tasks can be addressed later on in the description.

The essential functions list is also important for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations and FMLA leave management. The list will be used to determine what reasonable accommodations, if any, a disabled employee is entitled to in the role and whether an employee with a serious health condition may be entitled to FMLA leave for self-care.

Non-essential functions of the job

The non-essential job functions are tasks and responsibilities that aren’t integral to the main purpose of the job. These are tasks that could be eliminated if necessary to accommodate employees with disabilities or for other reasons.

The non-essential functions sometimes include bonus tasks like special projects, support for other team members, or other activities that are used to fill up spare time available outside of the employee’s core functions. For this reason, these tend to shift even more frequently than the essential functions, so you may want to pay special attention to this area when doing job description updates.

Designation of FLSA overtime status

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides guidelines for when, workers can be classified as exempt or nonexempt. Exempt employees are typically salaried and do not qualify for overtime compensation, while nonexempt employees are typically paid hourly and are entitled to overtime pay.

Review the FLSA guidelines to determine whether the job duties you identified as essential and non-essential allows you to classify the worker as exempt from overtime. Note the position’s FLSA status as exempt or hourly in the job description.

When to update job descriptions

The most common time to update job descriptions is when hiring a new employee or promoting someone to a new job title. Hiring managers will generally work with the human resources team to update a job description at the start of the hiring process to ensure that the job posting accurately reflects the role.

However, conducting regular reviews of existing employee’s job descriptions is also essential. These should be redone regularly anytime that:

  • The job changes with the addition of new duties or deletion of old duties; and

  • The employee reports that the mix of work has changed.

  • The employee’s status has changed from temp to permanent, from part-time to full time or from exempt to hours and vice versa.

  • The job or the job holder has begun remote work.

A best practice is to review job descriptions annually during performance review season. This is a good time to ask employees about the accuracy of their current job description and make note of any added tasks they’ve taken on or new skills that they’re leveraging in their role. Then, you can ensure that managers are evaluating employees on the updated job requirements and duties for their role.

How to update a job description

The process for updating a job description is fairly similar to the process for creating a new job description, but you do save some time by having an existing draft to work with. Here are the key steps to follow to conduct a thorough job description update.

Review the previous version of the job description

You can use the existing version of the job description as a starting point for your update. Though be sure to review each line and don’t assume that the content is all still relevant to the role or legally compliant.

You’ll also want to take a holistic look at the description and consider whether it is too generic or excessively narrow. You want the description to give a clear view of the role, and communicate the core functions and requirements of the job to potential applicants. Generic or broad job descriptions tend to attract a large number of unqualified candidates.

On the other hand, excessively narrow job descriptions tend to attract too few applicants as they may discourage applicants from applying due to concerns about qualifications or the potential for disability accomodations. Be sure to separate the essential and non-essential functions so that applicants aren’t put off by overly specific and lengthy requirements that may not be fully necessary for the core function of the role.

Consider what duties or systems have changed

You’ll also want to analyze how the job duties have changed, including whether the time spent on certain tasks has increased or if anything has changed in terms of the non-essential/essential categorizations of tasks. If it’s been a while since you last updated this job description, it’s likely that the technical tools and systems used may have changed. Even year-to-year, job duties can shift.

For example, shifting between remote, hybrid, or in-office work may change some duties or functions of the job. Therefore, businesses that have recently embraced remote work or introduced return-to-office initiatives may need to update their job descriptions accordingly.

Speak with the incumbent or their supervisor

If someone is currently in the role, use them as a source of information. This is a great practice to add to your offboarding (in cases of voluntary turnover) or transition processes (in cases of promotions) so that exiting employees can provide an overview of their day-to-day activities and key job functions. If there isn’t a current incumbent in the role, speak with the person who will be supervising the role directly.

Conduct a job analysis if necessary

A job analysis is an investigative process that involves observing an individual who is actually doing a job, interviewing the worker, and observing and interviewing co-workers. The job analysis essentially involves determining the job’s purpose and the structure of the job setting, This may include specifics about the employee’s work-site, workstation, and daily activities.

Once completed, a job analysis will help determine what accommodations can assist a person with a disability in performing a job and how the job should be classified under the FLSA. A full job analysis may not be necessary for every job description update, but conducting one can be helpful if there have been significant changes to the job role or work setting or if there is any uncertainty around FLSA classifications for the role.

Review legal requirements

It’s always a good idea to do a compliance review on any job description updates. One thing to keep in mind is employment classification requirements. Making an error on the position’s employee classification can be a costly mistake. There have been changes to the federal and many state laws on the guidelines for determining employment classification or independent contractor status in recent years. If you’re working on job description updates for any freelance or contractor roles, you’ll want to pay special attention to those updated guidelines to ensure that the role may still qualify as a 1099 or contract position.

Get an acknowledgment signed

Once you’ve updated the job description, present it to the applicable employee. Have them review the description and sign an acknowledgment stating that they have read the updated job description and it accurately describes the job as performed. You may also want to add language that urges them to update their supervisor or a specified in-house HR professional should the job change before the next review.

This acknowledgment provides a written record that the employee received an updated job description. It should go in their personnel file alongside a copy of the updated job description.