I am often asked by HR professionals whether it is necessary to update job descriptions or, more simply, even have them in the first place. While there is no legal requirement to have a job description, there are a few practical reasons to do so.

A job description (or job posting) provides applicants with a general sense as to the nature of the position for which they are applying. For employees, a job description sets expectations and can be a useful benchmark against which a manager evaluates employee performance.

In the context of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a job description can be a key tool to support an employer’s position with respect to the essential functions of a position and the extent to which a requested accommodation may reasonably be provided. Unfortunately, a job description can also be a glaring statement of inconsistency.

In a recent lawsuit filed against a university, a horticultural specialist with lifting restrictions claimed that her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her lifting restrictions, instead keeping her on a leave of absence for two years. Her employer presented an undated job description purporting to show that approximately 90% of her position involved certain physical tasks and, therefore, the employee’s lifting restrictions could not be reasonably accommodated. However, the employee presented a copy of the job posting which did not emphasize physical requirements, but instead focused on job responsibilities such as planning, design and oversight that were “not physical in nature.” In light of the inconsistency, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and the employee’s failure to accommodate claim is now proceeding to a jury.

This case serves as a sound reminder to employers that job descriptions should be updated to reflect current tasks. The job description should also include a catch-all statement that it is further subject to those additional tasks established by the manager. Other documents such as performance evaluation tools, department protocols or requirements may also be cross-referenced in the job description to improve an employer’s ability to argue that the job encompasses those tasks. Inconsistencies with documents such as former job postings can be remedied by informing applicants and employees that those documents are general postings, subject to the more specific requirements of the department and/or manager.

Bottom line – take these extra steps to enable the job description to enhance your reasonable accommodation interactive process, not hinder it.