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Accommodation and Compliance Series:
Job Descriptions

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JAN’s Accommodation and Compliance Series is designed to help employers determine effective accommodations and comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each publication in the series addresses a specific medical condition and provides information about the condition, ADA information, accommodation ideas, and resources for additional information.

The Accommodation and Compliance Series is a starting point in the accommodation process and may not address every situation. Accommodations should be made on a case by case basis, considering each employee’s individual limitations and accommodation needs. Employers are encouraged to contact JAN to discuss specific situations in more detail.

For information on assistive technology and other accommodation ideas, visit JAN's Searchable Online Accommodation Resource (SOAR) at http://askjan.org/soar.

Job Descriptions

Developing job descriptions is an issue that many employers deliberate. Initially, some employers may be daunted by what they perceive to be a lengthy and complicated process. Yet, with constructive tools such as job analysis, sample job descriptions, and on-line resources like Career Onestop from the U.S. Department of Labor, informed employers are able to obtain valuable information about their organizations. This publication addresses relevant background information, which includes the role of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) in developing job descriptions, how to formulate job descriptions, special features of Career Onestop that assist with the development process, and relationship to the accommodation process.


What is a job description?

A job description typically consists of six major components: 1) essential job functions; 2) knowledge and critical skills; 3) physical demands; 4) environmental factors; 5) the roles of the ADA and other federal laws such as the Occupational Safety Health Act (OSH Act); and 6) any explanatory information that may be necessary to clarify job duties or responsibilities.

Should an employer use job descriptions?

Whether to use job descriptions usually depends upon a number of factors, including employer preferences and resources. Employers should look at relevant rules and regulations, the size and type of organization and industry, hiring practices, and current employees.

1. Relevant Rules and Regulations

Employers often question whether there are organizational or other rules and regulations that govern policies on developing job descriptions. Though other federal and state requirements may exist, employers are concerned with whether Title I of the ADA requires employers to complete job descriptions. According to the enforcing agency for the ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

The ADA does not require an employer to develop or maintain job descriptions. A written job description that is prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for a job will be considered as evidence [in determining essential functions] along with other relevant factors. However, the job description will not be given greater weight than other relevant evidence.

The ADA does not limit an employer's ability to establish or change the content, nature, or functions of a job. It is the employer's province to establish what a job is and what functions are required to perform it. The ADA simply requires that an individual with a disability's qualifications for a job are evaluated in relation to its essential functions (EEOC, 1992).

Guidance also exists on identifying the essential functions of the job. There are several reasons why a function could be considered essential:

According to the EEOC, several types of evidence are considered in determining whether a function is essential. This list is not all-inclusive, and factors not on the list may be equally important as evidence. Evidence to be considered includes:

Other relevant factors such as the nature and scope of the work operation and the employer's organizational structure may be factors in determining whether a function is essential. For example, a particular manufacturing facility receives large orders for its product intermittently. These orders must be filled under very tight deadlines. To meet these deadlines, it is necessary that each production worker be able to perform a variety of different tasks with different requirements. All of these tasks are essential functions for a production worker at that facility. However, another facility that receives orders on a continuous basis finds it most efficient to organize an assembly line process, in which each production worker repeatedly performs one major task. At this facility, this single task may be the only essential function of the production worker's job (EEOC, 1992).

Employers should also research whether there are other rules and regulations that apply to them, such as state disability and federal and state safety and health laws. For example, to comply with OSH Act regulations, any handling of, or exposure to, human body fluids, biological agents, laboratory chemicals, or hazardous materials such as noise, asbestos, or carcinogens must be documented.

2. Size and Type of Organization and Industry

The size of an organization is a consideration in whether to develop job descriptions. For a small organization, there may be less time and resources available to devote to the process. However, such an employer may have fewer position titles, which require less time to write the actual descriptions. On the other hand, large organizations often have a multitude of departments and job titles. Larger employers benefit from having job descriptions when they need to standardize job functions across multiple locations and throughout the organization. Also, some employers should plan on having highly unique job titles that are specific to their industries, while others will have many job titles that are extremely similar, such as organizations with several clerical and administrative positions.

3. Hiring Practices

Many job seekers consider job descriptions a valuable screening tool. Conveying job expectations and requirements in a written job description can attract qualified and interested candidates. Inappropriate language used in job descriptions reveals discriminatory or inappropriate phrases and offers a quick indicator that an individual may want to apply elsewhere. For example, an employer should avoid citing standards that may unnecessarily screen out particular groups such as individuals with disabilities. In contrast, a description written in a respectful tone with appropriate etiquette may encourage an individual to apply.

According to the ADA, an employer may not ask disability-related questions and may not conduct medical examinations until after it makes a conditional job offer to the applicant (EEOC, 1995). An individual, as an applicant or a current employee, may wish to disclose that s/he has a disability and needs an accommodation, but is uncertain whether disclosure is possible or advisable. Including a brief and accurate statement in the job description about the employer’s responsibility and the individual's rights may help initiate the interactive process between an employer and an individual with a disability. If an individual is qualified to perform essential job functions except for limitations caused by a disability, the employer must consider whether the individual could perform these functions with a reasonable accommodation. An employer is not required to reallocate the essential functions of a job as a reasonable accommodation.

4. Current Employees

The process of developing job descriptions often sheds light on the nature of a job as well as suggests that there are alternative methods of performing essential job tasks. Job analysis may help encourage management and staff to work together in identifying and streamlining the essential and marginal job functions.

In identifying an essential function to determine if an individual with a disability is qualified, the employer should focus on the purpose of the function and the result to be accomplished, rather than the manner in which the function presently is performed. An individual with a disability may be qualified to perform the function if an accommodation would enable this person to perform the job in a different way, and the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship. Although it may be essential that a function be performed, frequently it is not essential that it be performed in a particular way (EEOC, 1992).

Note: An employer can change the functions of a job for business reasons. “The ADA typically does not limit an employer's ability to establish or change the content, nature, or functions of its positions” (EEOC, 1996).

Formulating a Job Description

There are several steps to completing a job description. These steps include completing a job analysis, recording the basic purpose and functions of the job, and detailing necessary qualifications.

Step 1: Completing a Job Analysis

What is a job analysis? A job analysis is an investigative process that involves observing an individual who is actually doing a job, observing co-workers, interviewing the worker, and interviewing co-workers. Additional data collection might be achieved using task-centered questionnaires, checklists, and journal entries. It is imperative that job tasks be recorded with videotape, pictures, and/or sketches so that an investigator can refer to them during reporting. A job analysis essentially involves determining the job's purpose and the structure of the job setting, including specifics about the work-site, workstation, and activities. Once completed, a job analysis will help determine what accommodations can assist a person with a disability in performing a job.

1. Purpose

2. Job Setting

Step 2: Recording the Basics

Employers should develop job descriptions that clearly define the essential functions of every job before advertising the job or interviewing applicants. A job description should have clear, concise, non-technical language, and avoid unnecessary words. The job description should focus on words that have a single meaning with detailed explanations for words that may be interpreted differently. Each sentence should begin with an active verb and use the present tense. Examples of job functions should be provided. The desired outcome of the work should be described, rather than one method for accomplishing that outcome. For example, instead of "writes down notes during meetings" put "records notes during weekly meetings." Writers should avoid using gender-specific language, jargon, technical language, proprietary names (Xerox), and ambiguity. Job functions should be qualified whenever possible and the desired outcome of the work should be described, rather than the method for accomplishing that outcome. For example, instead of saying, “she files folders” write that “the clerk files folders alphabetically based on category." Employers should let individuals read their job descriptions, voice any concerns, and sign their descriptions. Job descriptions should be accurate. To ensure accuracy, combine the input of many managers and employees. Within the actual job description, an employer should include:

Note that the term "essential function" should be used in the job description. The job description should explicitly state the manner that an individual is to perform the job. For example, a description of a position that requires contact with the public should include not only that the job requires the handling of public inquiries, but also that the inquiries must be handled in a prompt and friendly manner. Employers should also describe regular attendance and timeliness as essential functions of any jobs that require regular and punctual employee presence. Job descriptions should be updated periodically to reflect the essential functions of altered positions or any other pertinent change (e.g. fewer employees to perform the duties, mechanization, job-sharing, etc.). All levels of management, from line supervisors to top management, and human resources should review job descriptions.

Step 3: Detailing Qualifications

When detailing qualifications on job descriptions, employers typically require certain knowledge, skills, aptitude, training, and previous experience. Employers should remember that these qualifications might be gained in a number of ways. For example, knowledge may be gained through education, training, or experience. In addition, other requirements, such as the possession of a driver’s license could be considered discriminatory. For example, it may be necessary to specify that an individual must be "available to attend evening meetings throughout the community" and "possess a driver’s license” but an employer should distinguish between need and convenience and consider any discriminatory effects. An employee with a disability may be able to attend a meeting via teleconference or access public transportation to attend the meeting on site.

Step 4: Maintaining Consistency

Internal consistency is very important when developing an overall bank of organizational job descriptions. The employer may want to select specific formats, fonts, logos, and other elements to streamline and standardize the appearance of the documents. Consistent language such as preferred action words and frequently used terms can help create cohesiveness throughout. Internal consistency may also help “ensure equitable comparisons of content across jobs” in justifying employee salary decisions (Milkovich and Newman, 1990).

A bank of job descriptions can be instrumental in supporting the development of other organizational documents and standards as well. Descriptions may offer a framework for developing performance evaluations. In addition, the information gleaned may provide a common thread for developing employee resumes, policy manuals, annual reports, and organizational media.

Using O*NET

The Department of Labor (DOL) developed Career Onestop (http://www.careeronestop.org), an "online career development resource." Career One Stop features multiple tools such as O*Net and America's Career InfoNet, which may be helpful in formulating job descriptions.

O*NET, the Occupational Information Network, is a unique, powerful database that contains occupational information and labor market research. Essentially, O*Net is a publicly available search system that uses common language to describe job functions.  The goal of O*NET is to link information on skills, abilities, knowledges, work activities, and interests to associated occupations. These pieces of information, which are provided for over 950 occupations, can be used to facilitate career exploration, vocational counseling, and a variety of human resources functions. Business managers, human resources professionals, and trade associations are able to use O*NET to develop precise job descriptions quickly.

The database used in O*NET is based largely on data supplied by occupational analysts using sources such as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). To develop data for this database, analysts evaluated and refined existing occupational data, then applied these data to O*NET.  In addition, the O*NET coding structure has been aligned to the newly revised Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), which all government agencies are moving toward.  O*NET OnLine is available at: http://online.onetcenter.org.

America’s Career InfoNet (http://www.acinet.org/acinet) is another feature of America’s toolkit. This helps users find information on “wage and employment trends, occupational requirements [and] state-by-state labor market conditions.”  The Web site also offers a customization tool called the Job Description Writer. With the Job Description Writer, the user builds a description by typing job specific information into input boxes.  There is an opportunity to review national and regional occupational wage data extracted from the website’s other resources. To further customize the document, the user clicks on check boxes and lists of optional summaries, tasks, knowledge descriptions, etc., which have been extracted from the O-NET database. The final output screen indicates that the user may now copy and paste the information. The person can then use their computer’s word processing program to add, format, and put finishing touches on the job description. Job Description Writer is available at: http://www.acinet.org/acinet/jobwriter/default.aspx.

Job Descriptions and the Accommodation Process

Sometimes it can be overwhelming when trying to get a sense of the overall accommodation picture. A job description can be a constructive tool for exploring task-specific accommodation options. Often, it is beneficial to consider the specific tasks that comprise the job. This can help pinpoint what limitations are affecting an individual's job performance and what functions can be accommodated. Understanding an individual’s functional limitations provides helpful clues when searching for accommodation solutions. The following situations and accommodation solutions are based on sample job descriptions provided in the appendix of this document:

Situations and Accommodation Solutions


Job Accommodation Network
West Virginia University
PO Box 6080
Morgantown, WV 26506-6080
Toll Free: (800)526-7234
TTY: (877)781-9403
Fax: (304)293-5407

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a free consulting service that provides information about job accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the employability of people with disabilities.

Office of Disability Employment Policy
200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Room S-1303
Washington, DC 20210
Toll Free: (866)633-7635
TTY: (877)889-5627
Fax: (202)693-7888

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor. ODEP provides national leadership to increase employment opportunities for adults and youth with disabilities while striving to eliminate barriers to employment.

America’s Career InfoNet

Career Onestop

Job Description Writer


EEOC (1996). Enforcement Guidance: Workers’ Compensation and the ADA, http://www.eeoc.gov/docs/workcomp.html.

EEOC (1995).  Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Questions and Medical Examinations, http://www.eeoc.gov/docs/preemp.html.

EEOC (1992). A Technical Assistance Manual on the Employment Provision (Title I) of the Americans with Disabilities Act, http://www.jan.wvu.edu/links/ADAtam1.html.

Milkovich, George T. and Newman, Jerry M. (1998). Compensation, Seventh Edition, Richard D. Irwin, Inc. Homewood, Illinois.

Updated 09/06/08


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