HR Mavericks

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Reasonable Accommodation

“That darned office chair really messes with my slipped disk,” your employee says while rubbing his back. Did you catch it? This is a request for reasonable accommodation. Learn how to recognize a request and navigate all the in-betweens in this article.

What Is Reasonable Accommodation?

Per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), reasonable accommodation is “a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process.” In other words, providing supplies or making changes for those struggling to fulfill their workplace duties due to an underlying condition. When applied to individuals with disabilities, any U.S.-based employee suffering from a disability that impacts their ability to work should receive equal opportunity to be hired for a position if they are otherwise qualified for the role. Additionally, this requires employers to make accommodations for their employees as long as such accommodations are within reason. For the accommodation to be considered “reasonable,” it must not cause significant distress, present a safety risk to anyone in the workplace or cause undue hardship on the employer (financially or otherwise).

A Brief History of the Term “Reasonable Accommodation”

The term “reasonable accommodation” was keyed in 1968 in the United States Civil Rights Act, a legislation aiming to prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or disability. The concept was specifically referred to those with disabilities in the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The term can also be found in legislation such as the Fair Housing Amendment Acts of 1988 referring to the accommodation of citizens facing financial hardship. Primarily, this term refers to the responsibility of employers to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity for employment and is provided with the resources or adjustments (to the role or work environment) that allow them to perform job functions effectively despite a disability. Today it most commonly refers to accommodations made in accordance with the ADA on grounds of a disability, but reasonable accommodation can be requested for religious reasons as well. Religious accommodation is enforced by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Why Is Reasonable Accommodation Important?

Policies are policies for a reason. They touch on the universal need for fairness, empathy and justice. From an HR perspective, not only is reasonable accommodation necessary for legal compliance, it’s also a valuable tool with measurable benefits.
  • Hiring and retaining quality employees. When hiring, offering reasonable accommodation ensures you don’t miss hiring the best fit for a role due to a disability. Retention is one of the most common reasons employers seek out accommodation for their employees. The Job Accommodation Network reports that 90% of respondents said providing accommodation helped them retain a valued employee.
  • Productivity and engagement. That same study reports employers seeing a direct impact on employee attendance, promotions, retention and productivity because of reasonable accommodation.
  • Reducing costs. Reasonable accommodation specifically eliminates the costs of hiring and training a new employee because the previous employee left due to being denied reasonable accommodation. Additionally, providing such accommodations can save workers’ compensation or other insurance costs. Most employers report low or no cost for accommodating employees with disabilities.
  • Improved morale, employee interactions and more. Statistics point to many indirect benefits that are harder to measure, such as better coworker and customer interactions, increased safety and ultimately, increased profit.
Equally important to accommodating employee needs is the method used to approach and handle the request itself. From recognizing a request for accommodation to researching, involving your employee and implementing a solution, each step has its own challenges and ways to be handled with tact. Here’s what you need to know:

Step 1: Have a Policy and Process in Place

Ensure you have a comprehensive policy in place as well as a structured process to follow when a request for reasonable accommodation is made. This ensures compliance and that no discrimination occurs during the process. Here’s a great example of what your policy should look like.

Step 2: Understand When a Request Is Being Made

Not every employee understands their role in requesting an accommodation. They might come to you with struggles or concerns not understanding that reasonable accommodation is what they need. With this in mind, don’t hesitate to educate and offer reasonable accommodation to your workers. Not all requests come in the form of a formal document. In fact, legally, requests for accommodation don’t have to be in writing at all. Some requests look like:
  • *An employee telling her supervisor, I'm having trouble getting to work at my scheduled start time because of my medical treatments.
  • An employee telling his supervisor, I need six weeks off to get treatment for a back problem.
  • A new employee who uses a wheelchair informing the employer that her wheelchair cannot fit under the desk in her office.
*Examples taken directly from EEOC. Per the ADA, not all requests for changes are a request for reasonable accommodation. For example, an employee requesting a new office chair because his current chair is uncomfortable is not a request for reasonable accommodation. However, if the employee requests a new office chair due to a chronic back condition, it’s a request for reasonable accommodation. An interaction is a request for reasonable accommodation when it fulfills these conditions:
  • The employee (or their legal representative) informed their employer that an adjustment is needed.
  • A medical condition was specified as the reason for the request.
  • This was done so directly, in “plain English.”
An employee doesn’t have to mention the ADA or even say “reasonable accommodation” for an interaction to be legally considered a request for one.

Step 3: Investigate

Once a request for reasonable accommodation has been identified, the employer can begin to move forward with the process. If the disability or need for accommodation is not obvious (sometimes called “invisible disability”), the employer may request documentation outlining the disability and functional limitations to determine if the disability is covered by the ADA and necessitates accommodation. The employer can only request documents which directly involve the disability in question. In most cases, this is limited to documents officially diagnosing the disability and outlining limitations. When requesting documentation, the employer must specify what information they are looking for. The individual can be asked to sign a limited release allowing the employer to submit a list of specific questions to the applicable health care professional(s). To be clear, documentation is not a legal requirement to provide accommodation. A simple discussion regarding the nature of the employee’s disability and limitations is all that’s necessary to make clear the existence of an ADA disability and need for accommodation.

Step 4: Clarify and Brainstorm

From there, the employer needs to pinpoint the problem and what needs to change. This includes asking the employee relevant questions to decide on the best possible accommodation. Many times this conversation is simple and the needed accommodations are clear. For example, a dyslexic employee struggling with email assignments might request their supervisor to verbally communicate assignments or have a text-to-speech software installed on their computer. Each situation is unique. Some situations will need very little discussion, whereas others will require additional information. An employer doesn’t have to agree to the accommodation an employee requests and can select an alternative as long as the accommodation meets the need effectively. If there is more than one possible accommodation, it is ultimately up to the employer to choose the accommodation. It is important to note that if the employee doesn’t agree with the accommodation, they may not stay with your company. It is in everyone’s best interest to fully agree on what accommodation to implement. A good rule of thumb is to present multiple solutions. For example, if an employee with ADHD is struggling with constant workplace disruptions, brainstorming and offering multiple solutions can make the final accommodation more effective and help root out specific struggles. In this example, you could offer to purchase a cubicle door, and from there you learn the issue isn't coworker interruptions but the music selection and volume being changed regularly. A better solution might be to move their cubicle to an area further from the music or offer sound-proof headphones.

Step 5: Fulfill the Accommodation

This step will differ depending on the scenario and the accommodation. The main things to keep in mind before fulfilling the request are:
  • Has the accommodation been clearly defined and is it understood by everyone? Once multiple solutions have been brainstormed, a clearly defined accommodation is chosen and all parties educated on the decision.
  • Is the need fully met? This might be plain and simple such as a new office chair for chronic back pain. However, to be certain that the accommodation is effective, actively involve the employee. Do your research and select a few chairs for the employee to choose from, or even have them select a chair from a catalog within a certain budget.
  • Do you have a backup plan? If the initial accommodation proves ineffective, do you have a backup plan in place or the resources or provide one?

Step 6: Follow Up

Once an accommodation has been decided, set up a time to check in to ensure the solution is effective. Make it clear to your employee that they can be vocal about their needs. It's not unusual for an accommodation to prove less effective in practice than in theory. Be prepared to make quick changes and adjustments when following up with your employee.

Common Reasons That Reasonable Accommodation Are Denied

We want to take care of our employees to the best of our abilities, but this does not mean every request for accommodation is protected under the ADA. Always err on the side of empathy when a worker comes with a request for accommodation , but not every accommodation is a “reasonable accommodation.” Some reasons a ADA accommodation request can be denied are:

No Medical Reason Is Given

HR is no stranger to these types of complaints or requests. They might look like an employee complaining that the music is too loud, their chair is too old or uncomfortable or that the office temperature is too cold. All of these could be considered a request for change, but without a legitimate medical reason, none of these are a request for reasonable accommodation per the ADA. Even if an employee files documentation for an official request, with no medical reason, it is not a true request for accommodation. On the flip side, if the too-loud music triggers chronic migraines or causes tinnitus flare-ups, this is a request for accommodation. The mention of a medical reason for the complaint immediately changes the comment from a “complaint” to a legally recognized request for accommodation.

Lack of a “Limiting” Condition

Ultimately it is up to the employee to determine if an employee’s condition is limiting their ability to perform their job. It is also their responsibility to provide sufficient documentation if needed. As their HR representative, it is not your job to determine whether or not their performance is being impacted or whether you personally think they need accommodation. Rather, you must determine how to best support them and accommodate needs they present to you.

Refusal to Release Information

Employers are allowed to request sufficient documentation of the disability if it is not obvious. This only includes documentation directly relevant to the disability in question and only what is necessary to determine the “existence of a disability and the necessity for an accommodation.” It is the responsibility of the employer to clearly define and request whatever information is needed. After that point it is the employee’s duty to release said information. If the employee refuses to provide such information or sign a limited release, then the employee is not entitled to receive reasonable accommodation.

Unrealistic Accommodations Are Requested

If the accommodation requested by the employee causes undue hardship on the employer, the employer has a right to deny the requested accommodation. The employer cannot dismiss the request altogether however, and must present reasonable alternatives to the employee.

Examples of Common Accommodations

There are many accommodations that can be made. Some of the most common examples taken directly from the EEOC include:

Making Existing Facilities Accessible

This could include modifications to your building such as providing ramps, installing motorized doorways, or expanding walkways.

Job Restructuring

This could include modifying workplace responsibilities by moving marginal functions to other positions and redistributing responsibilities to accommodate the employee’s limitations.

Part-Time or Modified Work Schedules

This could include adjusting arrival or departure times, providing additional breaks, modifying when scheduled functions are performed, providing additional leave or offering a part-time schedule.

Acquiring or Modifying Equipment

This could include providing adaptive equipment in the cases of blind or deaf employees.

Changing Tests, Training Materials or Policies

This could include modification of leave policies or changing tests from written to spoken format.

Providing Qualified Readers or Interpreters

This could include providing a sign language interpreter for an interview with a deaf applicant or a qualified reader to review written materials for a blind employee.

Reassignment to a Vacant Position

This could include reassigning an employee who can no longer perform essential job functions to a vacant position where they can fulfill all required duties.
Kayla Farber

Kayla Farber

Kayla is the Chief Innovation Officer at Hero Culture, where the passion is to create company cultures of retention using the power of personality.
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