Newsletter and Subscription Sign Up

Job Descriptions Matter

Published Tuesday Apr 7, 2020

Author Matthew J. Mowry

Job Descriptions Matter

So, what do you do for a living? It’s the question we are asked most frequently. Yet, it’s probably not a question delved into enough at businesses.

Job descriptions may seem like an unnecessary accessory in today’s evolving workplace, but rest assured, they are essential.

Outdated job descriptions or having none at all could cost a company big bucks if an employee decides to take legal action.

“We’re seeing them becoming more and more important in defending lawsuits, particularly with the FMLA, ADA, and the FLSA,” says Debra Weiss Ford, managing principal of the Portsmouth office for Jackson Lewis and litigation manager, referencing the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act respectively.

She says a lack of job descriptions or having outdated descriptions can cause employers to lose in court when they are unable to defend that a specific element of the job was required.

Here’s an example. If an employee becomes physically impaired and wants to work from home and their manager denies the request, saying the job requires them to be in the workplace, but the job description does not state that being physically in the office is essential, it could be difficult for the employer to argue that point in court, Ford says.

That is especially important in workplaces that allow some employees to work from home while requiring others to be in the workplace due to the nature of their job, Ford says.

Employers can also find themselves in legal trouble over misclassifying an employee as either exempt (salaried) or nonexempt (hourly) under the FLSA. An outdated job description could prove costly if an employer classifies an employee as exempt but their job description is one of a nonexempt employee or vice versa, Ford says. That could result in the employer owing back pay for overtime as well as paying attorney fees and other fines, Ford says, noting, “It can add up to significant money.”

Just Do It
Ford estimates about 30% of her clients have no job descriptions at all, and 40% fail to update them annually. “That becomes an issue. Since the recession, a lot of job descriptions have become obsolete,” as positions were cut and employees who weren’t cut took on new responsibilities. For instance, many companies cut receptionists and started requiring other employees to answer the phones but never updated the job descriptions to reflect that, Ford says.

“If it’s not in the job description, it’s hard to say it’s a critical component. It could hurt you in defending an ADA case as you’ve not documented that this task is essential,” she says.

If a company does not have a job description or has not updated job descriptions in the past 12 to 18 months, Ford says they should address that as soon as possible.

A job description should include the specific job title, a job summary, responsibilities and duties, qualifications and required hard and soft skills, according to, an online job site.

Ford adds that it should include whether the job requires an advanced degree, certificate or license.

Ford says the job description should be kept in the employee’s personnel file with HR, and copies should be provided to the employee and their direct supervisor. Any changes should be reviewed by all three parties as well. “Get employees to sign off on the job description so all are on the same page,” she says.

But don’t think job descriptions are only to reduce legal liability. Ford says companies need them in place before interviewing job candidates to ensure finding the right match.

“A well-defined job description will help attract qualified candidates as well as help reduce employee turnover in the long run,” according to job site

While job descriptions should be thorough for internal use, pithier versions may help attract job candidates. According to, the key to writing effective job descriptions is to find the perfect balance between providing enough detail so candidates understand the role and company while keeping descriptions concise.

“We’ve found that job descriptions between 700 and 2,000 characters get up to 30% more applications,” Indeed states on its website.

Managers should also use job descriptions during reviews to ensure employees are meeting requirements, to identify areas for improvement and to decide if the job description needs an update.

“Formulate a plan to get job descriptions done properly and get a routine to update them,” Ford says.

All Stories