Essential Job Function

Tammi Burnett
Are you worried that you might accidentally be discriminating against employees in protected classes, or against those with special needs? Learn how to accurately assess the difference between essential and nonessential job functions to help your business thrive and create a more inclusive working environment.

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What Are Essential Job Functions?

Essential job functions are the core elements of any given position. These are job duties that must occur in order for the business unit (and overall business) to function successfully. In short, essential job functions are the reason a given position exists. While an employee may perform “other duties as assigned,” the essential functions of their job are those that would cause harm to the business or organization if they were not performed. Essential functions are not person-specific but position-specific. A business could have one or multiple employees all performing the same duties under the same title. However, others outside that title could or would not perform those duties.

Why HR Needs to Understand Essential Job Functions

Essential job functions are critical elements of a number of HR processes, including hiring, compensation, accommodations/interactive process. They even impact disciplinary procedures and terminations. To ensure compliance with a variety of labor laws and to create a safe and equitable working environment, here are a few things to know about essential job functions:

  • Understanding essential functions is the key to correctly classifying and compensating employees. Without knowing the essential functions of a given position, it would be nearly impossible to correctly classify a position within an organization, or to gain accurate compensation data. If we’re not sure what people do or can’t list their job duties, we can’t know if we’re paying them correctly. This can open many cans of worms, including labor violations, equity issues, perceived discrimination and more.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrmination against and provides equal opportunities for folks with disabilities, and this includes hiring and employment practices. When a candidate or employee comes forward with a disability, they are usually requesting a “reasonable accommodation,” which means they need a specific condition to be able to do their work. This might be as simple as needing a different chair, or it might be more complicated, and businesses are not required to make accommodations that present an “undue hardship” to the business. In order to determine what accommodation might be reasonable, the employer first needs to understand what the essential job functions are for that employee. This can be used pre-hire, to determine if someone will be able to perform all the necessary parts of their job during employment. See Example 1 below.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is the overarching federal legislation we use to ensure we don’t discriminate in employment matters. It covers race, color, national origin, religion and sex. Title VII allows for something known as a “BFOQ” or bona fide occupational qualification. A BFOQ is a particular job requirement that might involve a category protected under Title VII. Using essential job functions, we can determine if something is a BFOQ or potentially discriminatory. See Example 2 below.

How to Know if a Job Function is “Essential”

It can often be tricky to know if a job function is essential, marginal or nonessential. Here are some factors to consider when determining which category any job function falls under.

Factor 1: Would This Position Still Exist if It Did Not Perform This Function?

Essential functions are the reason a position exists, and without those functions the position probably wouldn’t be needed. For example, a payroll manager position exists to manage payroll. If the position no longer managed payroll, we could safely assume that the position would not exist.

Factor 2: Are There Other Employees Who Can or Do Perform This Function?

In some cases, there might only be one or a very limited number of positions that perform a specific duty, or there might be times when only one position can perform it. The fewer employees/positions that can perform that function, the likelier it is that it’s an essential function. Answering a department’s main phone line might or might not be essential to the position of administrative assistant, depending on if there are others who can do it or not.

Factor 3: Is the Function Highly Specialized, or Does It Require an Employee To Have Special Skills, Licensure or Certification To Perform It?

If the answer is yes, then it’s more likely that the function is essential. For example, an in-house attorney needs legal licensure in order to perform contract review and sign-off, so this is an essential function. Likewise, someone who operates a forklift must have a special license, and the function can’t be performed by someone who doesn’t have that license.

Factor 4: How Much Time Is Spent Performing the Function, and How Much Weight Does It Carry?

There are functions performed that might not be critical to business needs. That function might be marginal or nonessential. Conversely, there are functions that might be performed once per year, but are absolutely critical. That would likely be an essential function. The intersection of frequency and weight are an important determination. A custodian might wash the windows once per month, but if they didn’t, the overall business would not be impacted to a great degree. That function is likely marginal. A finance officer audits the budget every six months to make sure the company is on track financially. Though this only happens twice per year, it is absolutely critical to the business, which makes it essential.

Examples of Essential Job Functions

Below are some examples that might help illustrate and clarify the previous points.

Example 1

An office manager comes to HR and says they’re no longer able to work in their office because their co-workers wear too much perfume and they’re suffering from migraines. They want to work from home from now on. Migraines are a legitimate medical condition, which means this request falls under ADA guidelines. You pull out the job description and see that their job duties include greeting visitors, office supply inventory, meeting with vendors, and performing regular checks of office spaces to ensure OSHA compliance — none of which could be performed from home. There are no other employees who can take on this work, and without it the office will not be able to run smoothly. These are essential functions of this person’s job, and because their preferred accommodation would pose an undue hardship, you do not need to let them work from home. Instead, try to engage them in pursuing other appropriate accommodations.

Example 2

A Catholic school is hiring a new faculty member and a new janitor. In the job ads, they list “adherent of the Catholic faith” under the requirements for hire. In this case, the faculty position requirement could be considered a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) because the central nature of the business is to provide religious-based instruction. However, the requirement for the janitor position is not a BFOQ because the employee’s religious beliefs have no impact on how they perform their job.

Example 3

A museum is hiring a docent and lists “must be able to walk up and down stairs” as an essential function in the job ad. When HR reviews the job ad, that doesn’t seem quite right. Upon investigation, HR learns that there is art on two floors of the museum that the docent is responsible for. Is walking stairs appropriately listed as an essential job function? The answer is no, unless there are no elevators or other ways of moving between floors in the building. In this case, the essential function of the job should be “must be able to move between art on the first and second floors every hour.”Walking is not essential to the job, which could be accomplished via wheelchair or with other assistance. But checking on the art is essential. If there is no elevator between floors, the docent would need to be able to move through all the art in some other way, and if that’s not possible, their disability prevents them from meeting the essential functions of that job.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Essential Job Functions

What differentiates essential and marginal job functions?
A marginal job function is something that could be removed from a person’s job if needed (for example, in the case of an ADA accommodation) because it is not a core or central function of their job. If someone is an office manager and primarily manages the day-to-day operations of an office, and they occasionally help teammates by running reports, then running reports would be a marginal job function that could be carved off if needed. This work would still need to happen for the business unit to function, but the office manager in particular doesn’t need to do it.
Is driving an essential function of a job?
As with many aspects of HR, it depends! If driving is a central part of someone’s job (taxi driver, safety patrol officer, territory sales manager, off-site catering worker, etc.), then yes, driving is an essential function, especially if the person will be driving a company vehicle. However, if driving is a central part of the job, this MUST be spelled out in the job description. If occasional or limited travel is required for a position, driving should not be considered essential.
What are nonessential job functions?
Nonessential functions are functions that don’t impact the business whether they’re done or not. If someone is an office manager and primarily manages the day-to-day operations of an office, and they also coordinate office birthdays, coordinating birthday parties is the nonessential job function. If suddenly no one was coordinating office birthdays, work would still carry on as usual with no real impact.
Tammi Burnett

Tammi has 8+ years of progressive HR experience in a variety of industries and settings, including nonprofit and higher education. She believes that doing HR well means being a true partner and collaborator with every part of an organization, and by saying “yes” to creative problem solving wherever and whenever possible (and legal). Her favorite work includes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); the how and why of hiring and retaining great people; helping to sustain an organizational culture of trust, empathy, and candor; and anything else that prompts employees to say they love where they work. In her free time, you can find her wandering outdoors, studying clinical herbalism, tinkering in the kitchen, dismantling the patriarchy and white supremacy, and hanging out with her cat, Emily Dickinson.

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