Reasonable accommodation is one of those areas of employee relations that can be difficult to navigate. After all, how reasonable is "reasonable?" What constitutes an accommodation? How do we know when to offer those types of options and when it's not required? While a good legal counsel can help you to sort through your particular situations, there are a handful of good practices that can help to make the process of accommodating employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a little simpler.
1) Make essential functions clear in the job description
The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require employers to bend over backwards to support an employee that can't perform the job. It only requires that the employee be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. However, employers aren't always clear about what those essential functions are, which can spell trouble, especially if an employee challenges the issue.
That's why it's best to put those essential functions right into the job description. If the person has to spend time face to face with customers, make sure it's listed. If they are picking up boxes or moving heavy items, put it in there. If they have to stand or sit for extended periods, put it in there. Then when the issue comes up, you can point back to those essential functions to start the interactive dialogue.
2) Try to accommodate the inexpensive or simple requests
If an employee requires a special chair to support their back due to medical issues, buy it. However, according to Eric Meyer, attorney at Fisher Broyles, you don't have to blow the budget. Meyer explained that if the employee wants the $3,000 chair and a $300 chair will do the trick, you don't have to opt for the heavier purchase just because the employee requests it. Other fairly simple requests could be building a simple ramp for a wheelchair-bound worker or offering a larger computer monitor to help with vision issues.
From a logical perspective, having a track record of accommodating simple requests is a good way to help show that you are open to working with your disabled employees. If you debate every single item, no matter how small, it can breed the wrong kind of image.
In the end, sometimes requests for accommodation simply can't be met. Meyer mentioned one case where the EEOC sued Ford Motor Company because an employee with a medical issue was not allowed to work from home. In this case the employee's work required face to face interaction with customers, and the company couldn't accommodate a remote schedule. Ford ultimately won out in the case because the employee's "excessive absences" prevented her from carrying out the essential functions of her job.
3) Watch for trends
What were the last three accommodations your business made? What was the cost? What was the last accommodation you turned down?
If those questions made you sweat a bit, that's probably because you're like most organizations and not tracking the data accurately or in one place. It's important to do so not just because you need to be on top of these kinds of questions, but also for consistency and trend-spotting. Maybe you're getting a rash of requests to work from home or maybe there's another common request that signifies a bigger issue to address. Whatever the case, you need to be aware of those pieces of information, tracking them to ensure long-term equity among your workforce.
4) Tracking and managing accommodations
This is closely related to the previous item but it deserves its own focus. What happens when an HR or employee relations leader changes roles — do the details of accommodations that have been granted pass along to the new person? What about a more common scenario, such as when a manager changes?
Meyer mentioned an example of when this led to accommodation issues. In Boyle v. City of Pell City, Boyle was offered a different job as part of an accommodation for a physical disability. However, when a new supervisor took over, the accommodation was taken away. The ultimate direction of the case isn't relevant here, but the idea that managerial transitions happen is a general part of business. Without tracking and managing those accommodations in a central system, employers may run the risk of hitting a roadblock when it comes to those types of transitions.
Running into issues where ADA accommodations are required is inevitable, but employers can follow the practices outlined here to help prevent issues from spiraling out of control and costing the business in terms of legal fees and other costs.
Ben Eubanks is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research. He also founded upstartHR.com and hosts We're Only Human, a podcast focused on the intersection of people and technology in the workplace.