Job Description Law and Legal Definition

Job description refers to the required tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities, and reporting structure required for jobs. Typically, job descriptions are used especially for advertising to fill an open position, determining compensation and as a basis for performance reviews. Salary surveys are always based on descriptions and specifications. 

Some of the components of a job description include:

1. Position title 

2. Position title of the supervisor 

3. Date the position was documented 

4. Summary of the position 

5. Essential duties and responsibilities 

6. Position specifications 

7. Special considerations

Additional Definitions

Job Description

A job description is the official written account of an employment position. It is a structured and factual statement of a job's functions and objectives, and should give the boundaries of the position holder's authority. This account usually lists the typical tasks to be performed by the position holder, the training, education, and experience required to do the work, and it includes a description of the essential functions to be performed. Job descriptions also include information about salary ranges and any benefits that are offered to employees in the position. In many cases a job description also outlines how the position fits into a larger organizational whole. The term job specification is often used as a synonym for job description.

Recruiters and personnel managers rely on clear and concise job descriptions to streamline the application and interviewing process and to judge work performance after a person has been hired. Job descriptions and specifications usually include, in addition to the basic items listed above, details about:

  • The position's travel obligations
  • Normal work schedule
  • Physical location where duties will be carried out
  • Union status, if any
  • Supervisory relationships
  • Bonuses that may be earned and how they may be earned

In essence, effective job descriptions let employees know what is expected of them. If a person is to perform her assigned task she needs to know what it is, how to do it, and how to measure the results. All of these directives should be discernable from the job description.

Job descriptions can be useful in organizing and assessing the work being done at all levels of an organization. They are not useful only in the recruiting process. As the authors of a Charters Management Institute article explain, apart from giving the job holder and immediate line manager a clear overall view of a position, job descriptions can serve as the basis upon which to carry out performance appraisals and job evaluations. They can also help to identify any duplication or absence of particular functions or activities within an organization.


The level of detail utilized in the creation of job descriptions and the monitoring of employee execution of the duties articulated therein can vary tremendously from organization to organization. A multinational corporation, for example, may have job descriptions that are far more formal and detailed in their contents than those used by a small local business. Companies in different industries tend to approach the issue of job descriptions differently as well (tool and die manufacturers, for example, are more likely to institute job definitions for various positions than are fishing charter services). And, finally, some business owners and management teams simply institute and nourish different company cultures that may have dramatically different conceptions of job descriptions and their utility. For example, companies that operate in a flexible working environment, one in which employee roles are fluid and expectations change, may find the quest to define various job parameters to be daunting. The essence of the problem is how to reconcile clear directives with flexible work systems. One approach to solving this problem is for a manager to write a theoretical job description for how he or she sees the work being done. Then, those involved in actually doing this work can edit the description as needed in order to fine tune the description to the realities of the work environment.

But researchers note that on the whole, larger organizations will often, out of either real or imagined necessity, institute more formalized job description/monitoring procedures. Still, in many companies with detailed plans in this area, job descriptions are often thought of as necessary for only the lower-level people within the organization. Managerial positions usually come with what are called 'mission statements' and while this sounds very good, mission statements made a very poor gauge against which to actually measure anything. Most human resource experts suggest that all positions within a company should include a job description. These documents can help business enterprises maintain their focus at all job levels, including top management and ownership positions. Owners of family establishments or very small business enterprises, meanwhile, may simply decide that formal job descriptions are unnecessary. Ultimately, each small business owner needs to consider the unique aspects of his or her own business situation when deciding how to define and monitor the responsibilities of each work position.


The many advantages of having formal job descriptions for all positions within a company should not blind business owners to the need for consistency between what is stated in a job description and what is stated in the personnel policies of the company. The existence, for example, in a job description of details about how overtime pay will be handled must mirror the overtime descriptions in the personnel policy if a company is to avoid the potential for legal troubles.

Performance Reviews

Annual or semi-annual performance reviews are fixtures in most establishments, and they are useful to both employee and employer for many reasons. But employers should know that they can also run into trouble here if they give an employee poor marks for their work on tasks that are not delineated in their official job description. A company may be at legal risk if it holds employees responsible for work that has not been defined in writing. This problem is most likely to crop up in situations where a reorganization or attrition has prompted a reallocation of responsibilities within the organization. Of course, bestowing praise on an individual who takes on responsibilities not mentioned within his or her job description is unlikely to have unwanted repercussions. The key is to avoid linking negative outcomes (such as discipline or denial of a raise) to duties that are not included on the job description or to unduly focus on those duties at the expense of those responsibilities that are specifically mentioned.


As most employers are aware, federal law differentiates between employees who are owed overtime pay (non-exempt employees) and those who are not owed overtime pay (exempt employees). Exempt positions are excluded from minimum wage, overtime regulations, and other rights and protections afforded under the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employers must pay a salary rather than an hourly wage for a position for it to be exempt. Non-exempt positions are those that are not exempt from FLSA requirements. Employees who fall within this category must be paid at least the federal minimum wage for each hour worked and are paid overtime pay of not less than one and a half times their hourly rate for any hours worked beyond 40 each week.

What many employers do not know is that overtime liability can be linked to an employee's duties as they are described in his or her job description, not according to what tasks the employee actually performs. For example, suppose you decide that one of your managers' should occupy and office closer to the production department. If that manager comes in to pack or move boxes over the weekend, the employer may be liable for overtime—even if the employee is exempt—because packing and moving are not part of the employee's usual job activities. This principle applies to any tasks not normally performed by the employee, or to tasks that are not directly related to his or her normal job. The important issue to consider isn't whether the activity is a one-time event, but whether the task relates to the employee's usual job duties.

Employee Dismissals

Small business owners that decide to terminate an employee for poor performance have to make sure that they are doing so because of their dissatisfaction with the targeted employee's work on tasks that are discussed in the job description. Otherwise, the employ may have some legal basis upon which to challenge the dismissal.


Job descriptions can be valuable business resources when used correctly. But many companies do not take full advantage of these documents, either because they are ignorant of their possibilities or because of company-wide perceptions that they are of limited use. There are several factors that can limit the effectiveness of these documents:

  • Managers unfamiliar with purpose and usage of job descriptions.
  • Vague, inaccurate, outdated, or incomplete job descriptions.
  • Managers not motivated to utilize job descriptions.
  • Job descriptions arranged in format that is not standardized or friendly to managers or employees.
  • Job in question "escapes definition" because of fluidity, variety of tasks, etc.

Entrepreneurs and managers, then, need to attend to all of these potential pitfalls when creating job descriptions for their workforce. In addition, human resource management experts hasten to point out that job descriptions are only effective if they are subject to continuous review and revision.

  1. Continuous updating—Each employee's job description should be amended as his or her duties change. One commonly overlooked aspect of this requirement is that employers should react quickly when an employee quits or is terminated. In such instances, each task formerly carried out by the ex-employee should be formally reassigned in writing to another person's job description.
  2. Proper classification—Employers who remain cognizant of job descriptions and classifications when assigning various tasks are far less likely to get tripped up on overtime hassles than businesses that are careless about such issues.
  3. Communication—In addition to regularly scheduled performance reviews, employers should make sure that employees who find their duties and responsibilities undergoing change have the opportunity to ask questions—and even raise objections.

SEE ALSO Employee Hiring; Human Resource Management; Organizational Chart


Kleiman, Carol. "Job Descriptions Too Often Fail Seeker and Hirer." Chicago Tribune. 24 January 2006.

"Preparing and Using Job Descriptions." Chartered Management Institute: Checklists: Small Business. October 2005.

"Reality Doesn't Have a Job Description." Workforce. December 1999.

Sutton, Gart. "Job Descriptions Keep Employees Focused." Powersports Business. 15 August 2005.

Willis, Ron. "Job Descriptions." Masonry Construction. November-December 2005.

                                Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                 updated by Magee, ECDI