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Writing Legal and Effective Job Descriptions

Small businesses often rely on job boards and online listings to find new employees. The right candidates are essential when you're your own hiring manager and don't have time to sort through stacks of applications and resumes.

A good job description brings in good job seekers. But how do you write a good job description? There are countless job description templates online, but they say the same thing: describe the essential job junctions. This article reviews some legal requirements for writing job descriptions and what to avoid in announcing an open position.

Job Description Laws

It surprises many business owners to learn there are no legal requirements to have a job description. Your job posting can just say, “Now hiring," if you don't mind wading through hundreds of applicants to find the best candidates. However, an effective job description sifts out the less qualified candidates.

There are some things you cannot include in a job description. There are things you may leave in and things you must leave out when writing a job ad.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires any job description to include a list of essential job functions. The ADA does not require a job description, but if you provide such a description, it must include the essential functions. Your human resources department should review each position to determine the essential functions.

Depending on the type of work involved, a position may have one essential function or many. The ADA wants job functions described realistically, not just what a person should do in that position. For instance, if warehouse workers are supposed to lift 50 pounds but they routinely lift 75 pounds instead, the job description must say workers lift 75 pounds.

During the hiring process, employers cannot ask interview questions about disabilities. If the candidate volunteers the information, you can ask for additional information.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) prohibits discrimination in hiring against applicants based on their race, religion, gender, or national origin. Job listings cannot contain any discriminatory language that might violate Title VII. Things have come a long way since job ads read “blondes only" or “no Irish need apply," but employers must still beware of less obvious discriminatory language.

For instance, “bilingual applicants preferred" is acceptable since America is a multilingual society, while “English-speaking only" is not. Any exclusionary language violates state and federal laws. If you seek someone with language-specific skills, such as an interpreter, state this in the job description.

Other Federal Discrimination Laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets minimum wage, weekly hours, and overtime limits. Most states have labor laws that mirror or go beyond the federal requirements. If your position has mandatory overtime, a collective bargaining agreement, or other wage/hour factors affected by the FLSA, mention them in your job description.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination against employees and new hires over 40. Ageism in job descriptions tends to appear as lists of tech jargon or seeking candidates with “young vigor" or “Millennial ideas." These phrases imply you're pre-screening against older workers.

Weasel Words and Microaggressions

Dissatisfied workers have turned to “quiet quitting" before they look for a new position. Also known as “working to the rule," employees will carry out their required duties and no more. Workers can spot ambiguous job descriptions and weasel words in ads that are only looking for warm bodies.

Avoid slang terms or jargon. Saying you want a “programming genius" does not tell your candidates what programming languages or certifications you need. Speaking of programming, do some research before writing your ads. There are many anecdotes about ads wanting ten years of experience in a program that has only been out for three years.

If your business is fast-paced or high-stress, avoid the urge to spin it into a positive attribute. Job-seekers are learning that statements like “must work well under pressure," mean a business has one worker doing the job of three. Be honest about the job conditions.

Microaggressions are “statements, actions or incidents regarded as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination [toward] members of a marginalized group" or minority, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Microaggressions are often casual remarks that reinforce stereotypes. An example of a microaggression would be describing a job as “best suited for" a certain type of person, implying that other types are unsuitable.

How To Write a Job Description

Your job description should include a job title that is not misleading. Only use a title if you know what it means. A paralegal, legal secretary, and legal assistant are three different job titles and have three different job descriptions.

The job description should contain a list of responsibilities and principal duties. Your ideal candidate should have a good idea of what they will be doing from the description itself. As noted, your description must include essential functions and the key responsibilities required for the job.

You may want your job listing to include:

  • Core competencies, such as experience in common software platforms or machinery
  • Routine job duties and daily tasks beyond the essential functions
  • Salary range, especially for positions with tiers or levels

Avoid biased terminology, gendered language, or discriminatory phrases. If ADA or OSHA requires physical requirements as part of the description, such as standing or lifting, use their phrases.

Limit any subjective words, like “often" or “occasional." For instance, “occasional standing" may mean once or twice a day or once or twice an hour. The description should state how much standing employees do per shift.

Perks and Benefits

Workers today want jobs that include healthcare insurance, retirement planning, and other benefits. If you offer these benefits to your current employees, you do not have to provide the same benefits to new hires. It may not reflect your company's values, so think about what you want to give new and old employees.

Take care to provide the benefits you offer in a job listing once the worker has completed their onboarding and probationary period. Your workers will be happier if they don't have to call human resources a dozen times to get their insurance and 401(k) activated.

When You Need Legal Assistance

A well-crafted job description can help you recruit the right people. It helps new employees understand the duties and expectations of their job. If you need legal assistance with your job descriptions, contact an employment law attorney licensed in your state.

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