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  • Writer's pictureMike Earp

What are Essential Functions and Why Are they Important?

How do they differ from non-essential or marginal functions? How do you distinguish between them and why is that important for job descriptions?


In this short article we address what essential functions are and why they are so important to get right when it comes to job descriptions.

Grid showing essential vs non-essential functions per job role


What Are Essential Functions When It Comes to Job Descriptions?


Essential functions are the fundamental duties and responsibilities an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. 


That last part of the definition, “... with or without reasonable accommodation” significantly heightens the stakes and weight given to essential functions as they are written into your job descriptions.  Each job should be carefully examined to determine which functions or tasks are essential to performance. 


The list should be short, accurate and reviewed by someone in the organization with HR compliance and/or employment law expertise.  Expert review and approval should be completed before taking an employment action such as recruiting, job post advertising, interviewing, hiring, promoting or firing


If you are a hiring manager reading this, don’t take it upon yourself to list essential functions into a job description or posting without expert guidance. 


Essential functions are high stakes for organizations, as they are likely to be ‘Exhibit A’ in HR grievances, "return to work", and ADA accommodation situations.  If you make a mistake; corrections to job descriptions and the essential functions within them will not be looked at favorably after a hire is made, or even worse, after a lawsuit is filed.


Essential Versus Basic Job Functions– What’s the difference?


Basic job functions encompass all tasks, both essential and non-essential, while essential functions are a subset of the basic job functions. 


While essential functions are core to the role, basic functions can be supplemental or secondary to the role, and might be passed on to another job role with minimal impact to the organization.


Essential functions are the tasks that are most central to the job's existence and performance.  Stated another way, the essential functions of a job are the reason the job exists.  


How many Essential Functions Should Each Job Have? 


Not a lot, we believe the fewer the better.  Three, maybe four is considered best practice by many experts we talk with.  


How Are Essential Functions Determined? 


Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs), time spent performing the task, and consequences of not performing the function are allowable considerations.  Each depends on the situation and circumstances of the job and how other employees are doing the same role within your organization.   


While union agreements and the consequences of not performing a task are often straightforward; we often receive questions about the time spent doing a task or job, and whether that time should be put into the job description. 


We believe it’s best practice to avoid listing the percentage of time spent on each essential function.  While time spent is called out by the EEOC, it’s often not the best indicator of essential function. 


For example, an essential function for a receptionist role might be to answer incoming phone calls to the office– those phone calls may be intermittent or short in time spent, yet the impact to the business if the phone is left unanswered is a high consequence. 


The latter is enough to make answering phone calls an essential function of the job without the need to list or estimate the time spent, especially for intermittent but crucial tasks.


Below is a list of essential and non-essential functions for different job roles. 



Grid showing essential vs non-essential functions per job role


Conclusion


Essential functions serve a critical role in HR service delivery when it comes to fair hiring practices, setting pay, legal compliance, and optimizing employee performance.


Given job descriptions are often the first piece of information reviewed by potential employees, the initial document requested by legal in the event of a grievance, and the foundation for benchmarking pay ranges, it is imperative that the essential functions are concise and clearly defined.


Properly articulated essential functions ensure that job expectations are transparent, legally compliant, and aligned with organizational goals, ultimately fostering a more effective and equitable workplace.


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