Rethinking “Essential Functions”: 5 Ways to Make Job Descriptions More Inclusive

By Julie Rawe
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Essential functions are key to any job description. They’re the basic duties of the job—the main reasons the job exists. But are the functions you include in your descriptions actually essential? And are you writing them in a way that’s truly inclusive?

Overly broad job descriptions with too many essential functions can turn away qualified candidates with disabilities. So can descriptions that are too specific. The end result is companies missing opportunities to connect with talented job seekers.

“You can accidentally bias your job descriptions by the way you’re writing them,” says Debra Ruh, a disability inclusion strategist whose clients include several Fortune 500 companies.

For example, you might write that a plant manager needs to walk from station to station. But is the method of getting from one place to another really important? Couldn’t an employee use a wheelchair or scooter to achieve the goal?

The truth is there are many myths and misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities, such as the idea that people with disabilities are only capable of certain kinds of jobs or that accommodations are always costly.

Writing good essential functions is a balancing act. “When job descriptions are too broad or too specific, talented applicants may decide not to apply because they don’t check every box exactly as written,” says James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and the Workplace Initiative’s lead strategist. “Or an employer might wrongly decide they’re not a good fit because they have a different way of reaching the goals.”

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Carefully crafting your job descriptions lets you find the best person for the job. Here are five tips that can help you write essential functions that expand your talent pool, not shrink it.

1. Make sure the essential functions are truly essential. Keep essential functions to a minimum. Employers sometimes take a kitchen-sink approach and write job descriptions that could deter someone with a disability from applying. “When defining essential functions, consult with the employees doing the job and their direct supervisors,” says Emmett. “They’re the experts, and they can help you sort between unnecessary detail and key components.”

2. Focus on the goal, not the method. “New employees, especially those with disabilities, may figure out different ways to get the job done,” says Ruh. “There’s value to that creativity. What many employees want is, ‘Tell me what I need to do for the job, and I’ll tell you how I’ll do it.’”

3. Be as clear and concise as possible. “Remove any unnecessary detail because the more specific you get, the greater the chances of introducing bias,” says Ruh. 

4. Include language about diversity and inclusion. “Add a sentence or paragraph that makes clear your commitment to diversity and inclusion and that encourages applicants to apply even if they might not check every single box,” says Emmett.

5. Ask for feedback. “Tap your employee resource group (ERG) or other internal resources for feedback on drafts of job listings,” says Ruh. “Your current employees can provide valuable feedback on how to make your job descriptions more inclusive.”

Writing inclusive job descriptions with the right essential functions may take more time. But it’s worth it. It can help your company find qualified candidates for all your positions.

Learn more about how the Workplace Initiative can partner with you to make your hiring  process more inclusive.