Essential Functions of a Job

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When you sit down to write up job descriptions, the first challenge is to figure out what the “essential functions” of the job are. These come in handy for hiring, especially if you have to choose between candidates with differing qualifications, and during discussions about reasonable accommodations with an employee who has a disability.

What are essential functions in general?

Essential functions” are those functions that the individual who holds the position must be able to perform unaided or with the assistance of reasonable accommodation.

Essential functions are the core of the job, not the extras that might be helpful or that a current employee has. For a truck driver, essential functions probably includes driving a truck, keeping records, and following all safety and regulatory rules; they might include loading and unloading the truck; they probably wouldn’t include the ability to create a spreadsheet to track loads – even if a current truck driver has that ability and has used it for the company.

According to the EEOC, “Factors to consider in determining if a function is essential include:

  • whether the reason the position exists is to perform that function,
  • the number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the performance of the function can be distributed, and
  • the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.

Think carefully about how to define your essential functions for a job. What tasks would you let an employee off the hook for, as long as they do everything else well? Those are probably not essential to their job. Preferred abilities are not essential, even if they are helpful. If someone on the crew needs to have an ability, like lifting 80 pounds, but not everyone does, then the skill probably isn’t an essential function of the crew’s job but it might be for the crew chief.

It is also critical to separate the function, which creates a desired outcome, from the method, which is a way of performing a function. An essential function is a completed task, not how that task is completed. Results-oriented language will help ensure this distinction. For example, it may be an essential function of a job to “relocate (as opposed to lift) 50 lb. boxes.” (Source)

Just because you have narrowly defined essential functions for a job doesn’t mean that your job description can’t include other functions customarily performed by people in the job; just give them a different name. The distinction becomes important if you have someone with a disability and need to decide whether or not there is a reasonable accommodation for them. If they can’t do the essential functions of the job even with accommodations, then you can let them go with a clean conscience; if they can perform the essential functions but not all of the customary functions, then you should line up your lawyer if you decide to let them go.