Employer’s Departure from Job Description Can Be Evidence of Pretext

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Job descriptions are important tools in a variety of ways.  What an employer puts (or doesn’t put) on a job description can make a big difference when defending an employment action down the line.  For one, a job description can help employers satisfy ADA obligations by properly identifying a job’s essential functions and distinguishing them from the job’s marginal functions.  This is because the ADA generally protects qualified individuals who are disabled and can perform the essential functions of a particular job in question with or without reasonable accommodation.  (For a list of factors bearing on whether a particular job function may be essential, see the ADA’s regulations at 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n).)

More generally, job descriptions should be developed, maintained, accurate, and up to date.  A failure to abide by a written job description can cause problems for employers, as a recent case out of the U.S. District Court in Georgia illustrates.  Walker v. Columbus Consolidated Government, No. 4:18-CV-184 (CDL) (M.D. Ga. 10/10/19).

Walker, who is African American, worked for the Columbus Consolidated Government’s (CCG) Department of Public Services in several capacities, including correctional officer, where she also supervised inmates on work details.  Walker also had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree along with several job-related certifications.

Walker applied for a promotion to community service coordinator, for which CCG maintained a written job description.  According to the written job description, the position required, among other things, (1) knowledge of supervisory functions; (2) skill in staff and activities administration directly and through supervision of subordinates; and (3) a bachelor’s degree related to the field.  Walker and another candidate, Blakely, who is white and did not possess a bachelor’s degree, interviewed for the position.  Walker was denied the promotion, and CCG gave the job to Blakely.

Walker brought a failure to promote claim based on race.  First, the district court considered whether Walker was qualified for the service coordinator position.  Although CCG argued that Walker was not qualified because she did not have one to three years of experience supervising CCG employees, the court pointed out that the written job description failed to contain such an explicit requirement.  As a result, the court found that a jury could conclude that Walker was in fact qualified.

CCG also asserted that Blakely was more qualified for the position because he had more supervisory experience and a better interview.  In arguing that CCG’s reason was pretext for unlawful discrimination, Walker again pointed to the written job description to show that Blakely was unqualified because, according to the job description, the job required a bachelor’s degree which Blakely did not possess.  CCG countered with statements that several of the decisionmakers did not consider a degree to be an actual requirement of the job.  But the court deferred to the written document and disposed of these statements as “post-hoc testimony . . . that a written job description doesn’t really mean what it says.”  The court ultimately held that by departing from the written job description, CCG had “engineered” the hiring process in favor of Blakely by “adding an unwritten requirement that Walker did not have but Blakely did and deleting a written requirement that Blakely did not have but Walker did.”

The moral of the story here is that employers not only should have current and legally sufficient job descriptions, but also they should abide by them as well.  As Walker demonstrates, an employer’s departure from a written job description can be evidence of pretext for unlawful discrimination.


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