Changing an Employee’s Duties? What You Need to Know

The Covid-19 crisis changed the job landscape for many businesses around the world. Mass layoffs, the rise in popularity of remote work and other factors have transformed the expectations that employers and their employees have for each other. Since the only way to navigate some of the challenges brought about by the pandemic is to change the scope of some positions, it’s important to understand what you need to know before enacting a change of responsibility in your employees’ job descriptions. 

 

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Job description changes: employee rights 

In 49 out of 50 states, employment is considered “at will,” and either the employer or employee has the right to terminate an employment agreement when it’s no longer benefiting them. In most cases, employers are within their legal rights to update their job descriptions as long as the employees can’t claim the changes are discriminatory or punitive. To avoid these claims, you need to communicate clearly with your employees when changing the scope of their work and make sure that you’re not violating any contractual agreements made in the past. 

 

Examples of changing a job description that may be illegal include the following scenarios: 

 

Discrimination 

Changes to job descriptions can’t target any individuals or groups based on their gender, religion, race, sexuality or disability. If a business only selects a single individual or group of minorities at the workplace to receive new job responsibilities, then that can be construed as discriminatory in the eyes of a court. The best way to get around this is to have a conversation with the employee whose job you wish to alter and come to a mutual agreement on the new scope of work. 

 

Punitive changes 

If an employee has recently reported concerns to management, and their job duties are changed soon after, this can be considered a form of workplace harassment. These cases include whistleblowers being demoted or workers having their hours or duties increased to the point of discomfort after reporting an incident.  

 

Denying paid leave 

If an employee’s job duties or title changes, you must still grant them their paid leave. If the updated job description denies them the paid leave they acquired, or if they’re demoted while taking their leave, they can claim that the changes were punitive. When changing a job description, you may not touch federal paid leave that’s guaranteed to families. 

 

Constructive dismissal 

Constructive dismissal is the process of forcing an employee to leave a business by making it so uncomfortable to stay that they quit. Businesses have used this practice to avoid paying unemployment when laying off an employee or to get an employee protected from termination by a union contract to leave. This is illegal, and the employee has the right to file a lawsuit if they feel their work conditions were intentionally altered to force their departure. 

 

Changing job title: employment law 

As stated previously, employment in the United States is “at will,” and you’re allowed to change an employee’s job title whenever there’s a legitimate reason to do so. There are several circumstances in which transferring an employee to a new department or position can be problematic.  

 

Employee contracts 

If an employee has signed a contract with specific language governing the nature and scope of their position, you must observe the terms of the contract. The only way to change the job title of someone who’s under contract is to renegotiate the contract. If the employee consents to the changes and signs a new contract, you may proceed with revising their job title or description. 

 

Collective bargaining agreements 

If you employ workers that belong to a union, you may not change their job titles without union approval. The best way to proceed is to tell the employee that you intend to move them into a new role and then discuss the matter with their union representative. Once the union agrees to the changes, the employee can take on a new position within the company. 

 

Unfair demotions 

You may not lawfully demote an employee as punishment for whistleblowing or reporting improper conduct. It’s also illegal to demote an employee while they’re on leave. The best way to handle this is to wait until after the employee has returned and then discuss the matter with them directly. If they’re not willing to take on the new position you’ve offered, they can continue their regular duties or be laid off.  

 

If offering a new position to someone who has recently returned from leave, the new position needs to be similar to the old one. For example, the hours and pay need to be comparable, and the employee shouldn’t lose access to benefits they previously enjoyed. 

 

How changing job responsibilities affect morale 

Employers have a myriad of reasons for needing to change their employees’ job duties. A common one is that the rest of the workforce needs to adjust after a round of layoffs. Since an employer might have laid its workers off due to a drop in revenue, the workers who remain may suddenly be forced to take on more work for the same pay. In some cases, workers who stay on may be asked to take pay cuts.  

 

All of this can frustrate employees and negatively impact employee retention. Poor communication between management and staff can exacerbate the problem, as lack of validation or positive feedback makes employees feel unappreciated for the work they contribute. Employees who have been demoted often feel it was a punishment for poor job performance or something specific they did or said. 

 

Here are some ways you can lessen the negative effects on morale when there is a change of responsibility: 

 

  • Offer perks: If possible, offer benefits, additional time off or other perks to help justify making someone take on more responsibilities for the same pay. 
  • Create a new job description in writing: Many companies struggle with employee retention because employees feel the job they accepted differed greatly from the description when they applied.  
  • Prepare to negotiate: Even though you have the right to update job descriptions, each change of responsibility is smoother when the employee agrees to it.  
  • Make the purpose of the change known: An employee is less likely to take the change personally if you’re clear on how the new job description helps the business achieve its aims and what future benefits the employee will gain if the company accomplishes its goals.  
  • Document the reasons for the change: If you are demoting the employee for poor job performance, keep records of the metrics the decision was based on. This can help combat any claim of discrimination. 
  • Offer a pay raise: A promotion or raise in pay can often incentivize an employee to agree to shoulder more responsibilities. 

How Covid-19 is changing the job landscape 

The pandemic forced many employers to create remote positions so that employees could continue to contribute without the risk of falling ill. Even though we now have a vaccine and business is returning to normal, employees have grown accustomed to working remotely. Many employers are beginning to offer jobs that have some remote component because current technology supports it. 

 

Large companies often find it impossible to make a full transition to remote work, and smaller businesses may have a greater need for essential workers. One compromise some employers are making is a hybrid strategy that allows workers to work from home on some days of the week and come into the office other days. As this is a change in the employee’s job description, you need to update the scope and expectations for each position you wish to make remote. 

 

When adding a remote component to a position within your company, you might change employee schedules and suddenly expect them to work new hours to account for the changes. Provide detailed written changes to each of your employees so they understand them, and make sure they agree to the changes. If needed, negotiate new contracts before the changes take effect to prevent miscommunication.

 

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