Besides their obvious purpose of identifying work to be performed, well-written job descriptions are integral in recruiting and interviewing prospective employees, rating job performance, classifying employees as exempt or non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and making promotion and compensation decisions.

Plus, in light of recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), accurate job descriptions are more important than ever.

Added Importance Because Of The ADA Amendments Act Of 2008

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) restored the protections of the original ADA that had been eroded by various U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  As a result, employers are going to have to explore more accommodations for more impairments than ever before.

Job descriptions are the ideal starting point for performing an individualized assessment of an individual’s ability to perform essential functions, with or without accommodation.  Absent a firm grasp of the essential job duties, it’s impossible to engage in an effective interactive accommodation dialogue with the employee.

Added Importance Because Of Final FMLA Regulations

Under the final regs, if an employer will require that fitness-for-duty certification address an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions, the employer must indicate this in the designation notice and must include with the notice a list of the essential job functions.

A Step-By-Step Breakdown Of The Basics

The number of ways in which to craft job descriptions are as varied as the positions for which they’re written.  There are, however, a series of universal steps every employer can take to write a solid job description.

Step #1: Identify A Title And Purpose

Start by selecting a job title that is self-evident, reflective of rank or worth, free of technical jargon, and, as a rule, simple and recognizable.  Then, succinctly state the aim of the position.  What are the particular contributions of the job toward the accomplishment of the company’s overall objectives?

Step #2: Collaborate With Managers And Employees

The best sources of information for writing an accurate job description are those who perform the jobs and those who manage them.  Writing job descriptions is a collaborative effort — employees and managers should be included in the process, but they should not be left to do it on their own.  Use task-centered questionnaires and checklists to find out what skills, physical and mental abilities, level of education, etc., are necessary for performing the job.

You can also verify vital job skills by observing employees at work.  Observation works especially well for jobs that involve manual labor.

Step #3: Detail Qualifications

  • List only those skills that are actually used on the job; including a laundry list of nice-to-have (as compared to need-to-have) skills may lead to discrimination woes if a lack of these skills takes a minority job applicant out of the running, for example.
  • Identify how much experience is essential, and be prepared to back up your assertion.  Keep in mind that experience can be gained in a number of different ways.
  • Degrees and/or licenses must be named.
  • Be specific.  For example, instead of using “computer literate” as a necessary job qualification, name the computer applications the individual needs to know: “must be proficient with Microsoft Word and Excel; some familiarity with Microsoft Access is preferred.”

Step #4: Describe The Setting

Identify the physical conditions of the work environment (e.g., hot, cold, noisy), as well as the social conditions of the job (e.g., work alone or with the public).  Also, note if the use of specific equipment is required.

For steps 5 through 9, take a look at Writing a Solid Job Description, Part II.


Dan Nowalk

Dan Nowalk has had extensive human resource experience in various manufacturing industries within the St. Joseph area, including the pharmaceutical and animal health pharmaceutical industry, automotive industry, and banking industry.