Are Job Descriptions Legally Binding?

By JDXpert - July 01, 2024

Because job descriptions (JDs) are often used as exhibits in legal proceedings, you may wonder whether they are legally binding. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not black and white. However, since the JD can be used to support a legal argument and represents an agreement between the employer and employee, we should assume that it is.

The topic can be a little murky because job descriptions are not legally required. If a job description does exist and an employee signs off on it or proceeds to do their job based on the understanding that what’s contained in the document forms the basis of their employment expectations, that’s a pretty clear standard. With that in mind, it is in both parties’ best interests to ensure that the job description is current and accurately reflects the position and what it entails.

When is a Job Description Legally Binding?

Though job descriptions are not the same as employment contracts, employers often (and should) require employees to sign off on them. That signature represents an agreement between the company and the staff member as to the nature of the job, the skills and duties required, and what outcomes represent success in the position.

Job descriptions are updated if there are any changes to the position or to reflect aspects of the job that might relate to compliance frameworks such as ADA or FLSA. Such changes should also trigger a sign-off so any changes are understood and concerns can be addressed in the moment.

A job description can become a legal exhibit if a dispute is filed against the company or its employees. For example, if an employee sues a company for wrongful dismissal or unpaid wages, the job description can provide a basis for arguing either side of the lawsuit. In this case, the job description is critical to the outcome.

If the JD is not up to date, does not articulate what the employee actually does in their role, or is otherwise not in compliance with employment standards, the court may favor the complainant.

The most common types of lawsuits brought against employers are discrimination, wrongful termination, wage violations, and personal injury. A signed job description may not prevent these suits from happening. Still, when they are properly created and managed, they can substantiate the employee-employer agreement regarding the responsibilities and expectations of the job.

So, in answering this question specifically, we can conclude that while the job description is not necessarily a legal document, it can become a sound basis for defending a claim.

Keep in mind that it can also work the opposite way. If the job description is not accurate or compliant, the employee complainant could use it to prove they are in the right—or at least cast doubt on the employer’s defense.

Job Descriptions and Compliance

Today’s legal frameworks are complex, to say the least. Keeping up with the changes and ensuring your JDs comply with current laws is a full-time job.

But staying on top of job descriptions is an opportunity, allowing you to demonstrate your commitment to compliance, inclusion, diversity, pay equity, and transparency. While job descriptions might not be required by law, employers must comply with labor regulations. Job descriptions are a critical component of your compliance effort. When you leverage them in your compliance toolkit, you protect the company and everybody in its employ.

A big part of compliance is the messaging you display. Leveraging job descriptions to demonstrate compliance shows your commitment to transparency, providing clarity for employees and job seekers, and supporting your position should there ever be a dispute.

Legal Risks Associated with Job Descriptions

Poorly written job descriptions put companies at risk of legal action. Job descriptions, if maintained, must support compliance in contexts that include:

  • Returning to work from medical or maternity leave.
  • Religious accommodation as might be necessary to allow for certain styles of dress, flexibility in working hours, or breaks to allow for worship.
  • Disability accommodation could be considered if some of the job’s essential functions could be performed differently to accommodate a disability.
  • Discrimination: job descriptions must not contain language that discriminates against any group (age, gender, race, religion, disability, etc.)
  • Immigration and eligibility to work in the US.

In best practice, all employees and job applicants should be treated equally. Consistency in hiring and HR procedures ensures fairness, and job descriptions can be used to accomplish this task.

What Could Happen if Job Descriptions Are Non-Compliant?

Non-compliant job descriptions expose companies to unnecessary risk. Too many organizations see job descriptions merely as a hiring tool and something to gauge an employee’s success in performance reviews—sometimes not even the latter.

When JDs don’t comply with today’s legal employment standards, the company has little protection in case of a dispute about duties, job location, accommodations, or anything that could be seen as discriminatory.

For example, an employee may get passed over for a promotion and wrongly assume they were discriminated against due to gender, race, or age. If the JD does not clearly reflect the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) stance or comply with the laws it enforces, the employee could sue the employer—based on what could have been clarified with the proper verbiage.

Frameworks the EEOC enforces include:

  • The Equal Pay Act (EPA)
  • The Civil Rights Act
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The Rehabilitation Act
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

Employers are required to accommodate the above acts unless doing so would cause undue financial hardship to the employer.

Job descriptions should describe what constitutes a successful outcome of doing the job or the tasks involved instead of describing the person doing the job. Approaching the JD this way helps avoid discriminatory bias and may support a legal argument.

If the job must be done in a specific way that cannot be accommodated—i.e. if a task needs to be performed using a piece of equipment that requires specific physical or manual dexterity—stating so in the job description protects both the employee and the employer if such a dispute arises.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, we can say that while job descriptions are not required by law, they can be legally binding in the sense that they can be used to substantiate claims in a court of law. Companies can protect themselves from costly litigation and conflict by prioritizing compliance in job descriptions and ensuring JDs are updated to align with changes in legal frameworks or the work itself.

To learn more about writing legally compliant job descriptions, download The Ultimate Job Description Playbook.


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