Is my employer legally required to have job descriptions?

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Q: I recently joined a small company and we are growing.  It is an exciting opportunity.  I asked my manager for my job description and she said we don’t have job descriptions.  Is that legal?

A:  Job descriptions can be a helpful communication tool for both employers and employees.  A job description can detail skills and requirements for a role, as well as responsibilities.  However, not all companies have written job descriptions.  Many have job descriptions but they are quickly assembled and may not be as complete as an employee would like them to be.

I consulted Attorney Jonathan Sigel, a partner with Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie and Lougee, LLP.  Sigel offers his legal opinion: “Neither Massachusetts nor federal law requires that employers have written job descriptions.  However, as a management-side employment attorney, I strongly recommend that all employers develop and maintain comprehensive and accurate job descriptions for every position in their organizations.  Job descriptions are obviously great tools for communicating duties, expectations and educational/work qualifications to an applicant and/or employee.  They also should reflect any physical qualifications of the positions – particularly those that have significant physical demands (e.g., lifting, bending, standing, etc.).

Sometimes job descriptions can be useful when an employee and his or her health care provider need to discuss returning to work after an illness or an injury.  A health care provider should review a job description when suggesting a plan for an employee to return to work.  Sigel explains, “When an employee has an illness or injury which causes him/her to be out of work, a job description may be provided to the employee’s health care provider to help him/her understand the employee’s specific duties so fitness for return to work and possible restrictions/accommodations can be determined.  In short, a well-crafted job description can be extremely important and useful for both the employee and employer.”

In our work with clients, we are sometimes ask to draft job descriptions.  We use a questionnaire that employees can complete and then we pull that data into a job description template.  Some companies also will ask employees to write the first draft of a job description, since often the employees know the role better than anyone else within the organization.

Job descriptions are also helpful in establishing pay levels within an organization.  When companies compare their pay rates to their competitors, often one of the first tools a good compensation expert requests is a complete and accurate job description.

In your situation, I would suggest that you offer to draft a job description for your role.  Share the draft with your manager.  Your manager may have some edits but you will have your job description in case it is ever needed.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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