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What Employers Need to Know About Job Descriptions and Why Ignoring Them Can Be Dangerous

When I informally survey human resource professionals and business executives at my seminars and workshops, I always am surprised to hear how relatively few have up-to-date job descriptions for their employees. This is more than simply unfortunate, it is potentially expensive. Proper job descriptions can have numerous benefits, including the following:

Job Descriptions Save Money

Time and again, employers complain about how difficult it is to find good employees that “fit” their organization. Regrettably, far too many employers spend insufficient time considering the kind of employees who are and have been successful at their organizations. Success leaves valuable clues. Even when employers do plan their hiring needs carefully, many fail to take the important step of creating a job description that properly captures the business and employment needs for a given position. As a result, employers incur thousands of dollars in transaction costs replacing employees who fail to work out.

Job Descriptions Often Prevent Legal Claims

Properly crafted job descriptions serve as a template to inform hiring decisions in the first instance, and then to subsequently measure the employee’s performance once hired. In my experience, employees often “fail” because there are unmatched expectations between the employee and the employer. In many, if not most instances, these unmatched expectations can be traced to the hiring phase, and, more specifically, to a breakdown in communicating an employer’s vision for how an employee is to perform her work. It should come as no great surprise, then, that employers who fail to consider carefully how each individual fits into the organization make poor hiring decisions. The process of creating sound job descriptions imposes a necessary discipline for employers in this regard. As noted above, unmatched expectations between employees and employers lead not only to higher transaction costs in terms of having to replace employees, but they invariably lead to employee dissatisfaction and frustration, which often translate into legal claims.

Outside investigative agencies and courts expect to see job descriptions. 

Included among the documents government agencies routinely ask for in connection with investigations of claims of harassment or discrimination are copies of job descriptions. Investigators want to measure the employer’s reasons for termination against the performance standards set forth in the job description itself. In particular, job descriptions play a critical role with respect to claims based upon the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and analogous state and local laws. This is because one of the first places outside investigators look to determine whether an individual can perform the essential functions of his/her job with or without an accommodation is the job description itself. If that job description fails to articulate the essential job functions, then an employer will likely have difficulty establishing that an employee failed to meet them.

Job descriptions can be particularly helpful in defending wage hour claims.

Wage hour claims are being filed with alarming frequency. One of the primary arguments made by disgruntled employees is that they were mischaracterized as exempt employees (that is, ineligible for overtime pay), even though they may never have complained about the characterization of their employment status while employed with their employer. A critical factor in determining if an employee is exempt under the overtime laws is whether the individual exercises significant amounts of discretion and independent judgment. To this end, when Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to try to provide employers with guidance on when certain employees were exempt from the overtime laws, it included a set of criteria (i.e., a list of ten factors) to determine whether the employee had the requisite discretion and independent judgment. One of the important steps employers can take to defend against many wage hour claims is to make sure that the job descriptions not only accurately reflect the work to be performed by the employee, but that they properly and accurately memorialize the nature and extent of the discretion and independent judgment that is to be exercised by these individuals.

Job descriptions make the jobs of managers easier.

One of the worst-kept secrets in the modern workplace is that mid-level managers are often not trained on how to manage employees properly and far too often are embarrassed to ask for guidance. As noted, job descriptions can play an important role in performance management by providing a blueprint for the types of work to be performed by the employee. This same blueprint can be used during the evaluation process to measure how well the employee performed against the properly communicated standards. When this occurs, the jobs of managers in managing employees becomes easier because they can proceed to evaluate the employees based upon criteria that have already been established. This has numerous benefits, including providing the foundation for performance plans if they need to be issued; laying the groundwork for adverse employment actions if they need to be taken; and providing employees with the appropriate level of information needed to turn around their substandard performance.

Job descriptions provide a road map to success and can ultimately assist in retaining good employees.

It should seem self-evident that when employees know what is expected of them there is a higher likelihood that they (i) will actually satisfy their performance goals; (ii) will grow more confident in their abilities; and (iii) will seek even greater levels of responsibility within the organization. Simply put, job descriptions can provide a road map for success because they become fluid documents that not only define the duties and responsibilities at the outset of employment, but are modified to reflect increased responsibilities as an employee develops professionally and personally. Employee surveys regularly reveal that employees are looking for more than a nice salary. They are also seeking job satisfaction and a real sense of professional opportunity and growth in order to remain interested and committed to an organization. Job descriptions further the goal of employee retention by communicating in subtle, and not so subtle, ways that employers care about the professional development and growth of their employees, and are prepared to address their job related concerns in proactive and often creative ways.

In conclusion, employers that commit to creating (and updating) job descriptions will find that the benefits to be gained from them far transcend the time spent in crafting them. 

Marc Engel is an employment attorney at Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, Maryland who regularly counsels clients on how to comply with state and federal employment statutes, including the American With Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and federal and state wage hour laws. For more information about developing and reviewing job descriptions, contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or mrengel@lerchearly.com.

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This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.

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