A job description that accurately reflects the essential functions of an employee’s position with a company may become the holy grail of personnel documents for an employer in employment litigation. Yet, employers all too often fail to use, or misuse this critical document to their detriment. A job description should be well-written and relied upon by the employer and the employee throughout the employment relationship.
A well-written job description informs prospective employees of the position’s required qualifications, essential job functions and duties, and the employer’s performance expectations. It also permits the employer to focus its inquiries regarding an applicant’s work experiences and qualifications for the position. When drafting a job-description, accuracy is paramount. Every duty, responsibility and expectation listed in the job description should be something that is actually required of an employee in the position. A new employee should sign a copy of his or her job description at the time of hire and current employees should sign an updated copy of their job description if such is revised during the employment relationship.
Lawsuits alleging that an employee (or class of employees) was misclassified as “exempt” when he or she was really “non-exempt” are becoming increasingly prevalent, and are extremely costly for employers to defend. In California, an exempt employee must meet all of the criteria enumerated in the applicable IWC Wage Order for the specific position to be considered “exempt.” If an employee alleges that he or she has been misclassified as exempt, the employer has the burden to prove the employee actually performed the job duties required of exempt employees. An accurate job description that references all the criteria necessary to establish an employee’s exempt status is a critical piece of an employer’s evidence. (California Labor Code section 515 provides in pertinent part that the payment of a fixed salary to a nonexempt employee is deemed to provide compensation only for the employee’s regular, nonovertime hours, notwithstanding any private agreement to the contrary.)
A well-written job description should serve as a template for employers when evaluating an employee’s work performance. An accurate job description that has been communicated to the employee in the past provides the employer and employee with an objective checklist to be used when assessing the employee’s performance. (While employers are not required to conduct formal performance reviews, if an employer does so, the review must be done honestly.)
A well-written and accurate job description becomes critical when the employer must engage in the “interactive process” with a disabled employee in need of a “reasonable accommodation.” Whether the conversation is necessary to have at the time of hire, or arises during the employment relationship, the list of essential job functions in a job description will help the parties identify the job functions that may require a temporary or permanent accommodation, and allow the employer to assess whether accommodating the employee would impose an “undue hardship” on it. Additionally, when a reasonable accommodation may involve an employee’s reassignment to a new position, available job descriptions can help determine whether the employee would be able to perform the essential functions of the new position with or without a reasonable accommodation.
If contemplating the discharge of an employee for poor performance, the employer should use the job description as a guide in the event it must explain how the employee was not meeting its legitimate expectations. If the employee’s poor performance was documented when assessing the employee’s performance, such will provide evidence justifying the employer’s decision to terminate the employee.