A few weeks ago, we discussed why providing accommodations to your employees with disabilities can actually benefit your business. Among the perks we discussed besides obviously staying on the right side of the law, we noted that it can result in a total return on investment in the form of higher productivity, better employee engagement, improved employee retention, and a healthier bottom line. So now that we understand the perks, let’s talk about how you can create a robust and reasonable accommodation process for your business to turn to whenever a request is made.
Step 1: Get everyone on board
If you read our last blog on this topic, you now have a grasp of the perks of a reasonable accommodation process. However, many folks not in the know still see it as a burden or even a disruption to their business and believe that such accommodations are expensive, unwieldy, and ultimately ineffective. In order to adopt a new process in your business, you need to get folks at every level on board with the benefits. A good place to start is to host a meeting where you share that blog post perhaps with managers and upper level executives and perhaps add any past experiences your company has had either making accommodations or struggling from the fall out of not doing so. In having an in-person (or these days, a video chat!) conversation, you can answer questions and squash misconceptions that could derail further plans in the process.
Step 2: Finalize your job descriptions
The US Department of Labor (DOL) notes that one of the most important facets of a good accommodation process is to first have all your job descriptions in order. Specifically, they recommend that job descriptions include a “detailed description for each job that lists its essential functions and duties,” and that the description focus on the job, not the abilities of the person. For example, you should state that the job requires the movement of objects weighing up to 20 lbs, versus stating that employees must be able to lift 20 lbs. In addition, the DOL notes that job descriptions should also include “details such as scheduling and location, equipment necessary to complete the job, any health and safety requirements, and conduct requirements.” When you have all this information laid out, it is easier to see if an accommodation request will be easy to fulfill or if it will require significantly more work arounds.
Step 3: Write it down
While no two accommodation requests are rarely the same, you should still write out what the accommodation request, review and decision process should look like for your company. When you’re putting together your document, consider including a brief overview of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it pertains to accommodation process, guidelines for how to submit a request and what documentation needs to be provided, a point of contact for in-person discussions about the accommodation process, and a timeline that outlines how long each step of the review process should take. It’s OK to be very general here and give loose guidelines, provided you have some kind of a semblance of a plan outlined as to who’s managing the process and what the expectations for both the worker and your company are throughout the process.
Step 4: Start the conversation
After reading your document, the employee approaches the right person with a request for an accommodation. Ideally, the person in charge of managing such claims should be fairly well versed in the ADA laws and the accommodation process and should be skilled in keeping the conversation focused, on track, and (most importantly) legal! This is because even a quick conversation about a perceived disability or a casual request for something extra represents “awareness” under the ADA and failure to act accordingly can land you on the wrong side of the law. We should also note that this initial conversation is also not the time to discuss the validity of their disability; instead, keep the focus on how said disability impact’s the employee’s ability to perform their job and use that to frame your conversation accordingly. However, now is absolutely the best time to begin documenting, documenting, documenting! Whether you chat in person or by phone, take notes and be sure to type up a memo to be added to their employee file documenting the conversation and the request. Next, you should establish a paper trail. The easiest way is to send said employee an email summarizing the conversation that you had, as well as a meeting invite to discuss their request further.
Step 5: Analyze the request
Once you’ve gotten past that initial conversation regarding a need, the interactive process which is required under the ADA begins and you can start making headway in terms of addressing this issue. During this process, the contact person and the employee should discuss the functional or physical limitation the employee is experiencing and how it intersects with their essential job tasks. At this time, you can also discuss whether the employee themselves knows what type of accommodation they require in order to perform their duties, such as raising the height of a desk to allow a wheelchair to roll more fully underneath it so that the employee can sit more comfortably at their desk. Be sure not to promise a fix, and rather leave the conversation noting that you will be exploring options and will get back to them with some ideas or further information by a certain deadline. As with the above step, you should be sure to document this interaction, again by sending the employee a follow up email summarizing your conversation, planned next steps, and when they can expect to hear back from you.
Step 6: Determine what is reasonable and feasible
While the ADA is generally very quick to side with employees, they are surprisingly reasonable when it comes to accommodation requests. Specifically, they state that businesses can only be expected to accommodate requests when it won’t place an “undue hardship” on the business, which covers you not just from a financial perspective, but also from being forced to make changes that would be “unduly extensive or disruptive or would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. “Now, that’s not to say that denying a request is simple, you must prove that it would be a financial burden based on your company’s resources AND that you have explored other avenues of funding such as grant programs or other resources before denying the request. In other words, tread very cautiously when you make a decision to say no.
Again, as you evaluate the request, you should be focusing on how the disability impacts your employee’s ability to perform their essential job functions, as well as how practical the proposed solution is to implement for your business.
Step 7: Make the accommodation and monitor its effectiveness
The DOL notes that ultimately, the employer has the final say as to which accommodations can be implemented. However, as we’ve touched on above, the process works best when it represents a collaborative effort between the employee and the company and “when the employee’s needs and preferences have been taken into consideration.” Further, just because you’ve implemented what was perceived to be a good solution, the process shouldn’t necessarily stop there. You should set up regular check-ins with the employee to determine whether the accommodation you made is indeed helping them to complete the essential functions and duties of their job. If it isn’t working, or a better solution has presented itself, you must start the accommodation request process again. It generally moves quicker the second time around as so much of the groundwork has already been done and the process will instead focus on the specific change being requested.