Job Descriptions: What Are Essential Functions?

If you can't perform an essential function because of a disability, you aren't qualified for the job.

Question:

I am paralyzed from the waist down, and I use a wheelchair. I recently applied for a job as an administrative assistant. At the interview, the hiring manager gave me a job description for the position. In addition to the duties I expected (computer and phone work such as keyboarding, correspondence, calendaring, scheduling with clients, and so on), it listed a couple of physical tasks that would be difficult for me to perform unassisted, like lifting heavy boxes of paper. The physical tasks were listed under a heading "Non-essential Duties." Does this mean I don't have to be able to do them? I don't understand the difference between essential and non-essential duties.

Answer:

Essential functions are really just what they sound like: the fundamental job duties that anyone holding that position must be able to do. From a legal perspective, whether a function is essential or not determines whether applicants or employees with disabilities are qualified for the job.

Here's how it works: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants with disabilities from discrimination. However, it does not require employers to hire people who can't do the work. Essential functions are used to determine which applicants are qualified for a position. If you can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, you are qualified. If you cannot perform the essential functions, even with a reasonable accommodation, the employer is legally allowed to reject you for the job, even if your disability is reason you can't perform those functions.

Savvy employers -- and it sounds like the one who conducted your recent interview is one of them -- clearly distinguish between essential and non-essential functions on their job descriptions, performance evaluations, and hiring criteria. From a practical perspective, this helps ensure that the employer doesn't inadvertently miss out on a great candidate because of misconceptions about the person's disability or because the applicant is unable to do tasks that really aren't important to the job. From a legal perspective, this protects employers from accusations of disability discrimination. For example, physical requirements are absolutely essential for some jobs. An employer that carefully distinguishes the necessary job tasks from those that are superfluous or unimportant will be able to defend itself from allegations of discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA, looks at these factors in deciding whether a function is truly essential:

  • - the employer’s determination of which functions are essential, as shown by job descriptions written before the employer posts or advertises for the position (in other words, before the employer knows that it is evaluating applicants with particular disabilities)
  • - the experience of employees who actually hold that position
  • - whether the job exists to perform that function (if the entire job consists of one task, such as loading and unloading boxes or entering information into a database, then that function is essential)
  • - the time spent performing the function
  • - the consequences of not performing the function
  • - whether other employees are available to perform the function, and
  • - the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.

It sounds like your potential employer has clearly separated out non-essential tasks that are not at the core of an administrative assistant's position. In a job interview in which essential and non-essential functions are clearly delineated, your job is to sell your ability to do the essential functions, quickly and well. Employers are legally allowed to ask you to demonstrate how you would perform essential functions, too. But from a legal perspective, you cannot be excluded from consideration due to your inability to perform non-essential job functions.

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