Job Descriptions: Essential vs. Nonessential Functions

Job Descriptions: Essential vs. Nonessential Functions

by on 11 Jun, 2018

A crucial element to any job description is listing the essential and nonessential functions of the job. Put simply, an essential job function is one that the person holding the job must be able to perform, whereas non-essential job functions are those that do not affect the essence of the job and could be reassigned to other employees. But why is including these functions in job descriptions so important? And how does one determine if a job function is truly essential?

The main reason that the inclusion of essential and non-essential job functions in job descriptions is important is that it protects employers against claims of discrimination. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), any employee that can perform the essential functions of the job is protected from discrimination by the employer. The ADA does not, however, require employers to hire candidates that are not qualified to do the job.  In some instances, a candidate or employee with a disability may make an accommodation request to be able to perform the essential job function.

Reasonable accommodations are any changes or adjustments to a job or work environment that would enable an otherwise qualified employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. Some examples include making the workplace accessible to people with disabilities, providing readers or interpreters, and the deployment of certain devices or equipment. Failing to make these reasonable accommodations is a violation of the ADA, unless doing so would cause undue hardship on the business, such as a large expense or significant difficulty. If the candidate or employee is unable to perform the job function, even with a reasonable ADA accommodation, then they are not considered to be qualified for the job and are not protected from discrimination under the ADA.

Thus, clearly listing in the job description which functions are essential and which are nonessential greatly streamlines the process of determining if a candidate is qualified to perform the job. It makes it much simpler for candidates with disabilities to request an accommodation, if necessary, and thus makes it easier for the employer to determine if they are able to provide said accommodation. It also makes it more difficult for a candidate who was rejected to turn around and claim that the employer discriminated against them. If this occurs, the employer can provide the job description with the essential and nonessential functions listed, and provide evidence of why they are not able to accommodate the candidate, thus making them unqualified and not able to claim discrimination under the ADA.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing the ADA, and they have some more guidelines for determining if job function is truly essential, including:

    • If the position exists to perform that function
    • Whether or not there are other employees that can perform the function
    • The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function

The EEOC uses the essential functions listed in the job description as a form of evidence of essential function in the instance of a discrimination claim. They also consider additional evidence, such as:

    • Previous job descriptions
    • The actual experience of other employees performing the same job
    • The consequences of not performing the function
    • The ease with which the function could be reassigned to other employees

In conclusion, determining the essential and nonessential functions of a job is a key step in crafting any job description. It simplifies the interview and hiring process, and it also protects employers from discrimination claims under the ADA. Every employer should understand the concept of essential and nonessential functions and be sure to include updated versions of said functions in every job description.

This post is part of a series on job descriptions. Check out the other posts in the series:

Job Descriptions: Setting A Salary Range

Job Descriptions: Working Conditions and Physical Demands

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Disclaimer: this article does not represent expert advice and is provided for informational purposes. Please get in touch if you would like expert HR advice.

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