A claim of disability?

Amy recently wrote about issues of fragrance in the workplace, and how to protect people with these allergies.  That’s certainly a serious and legitimate issue.  I want to approach questions of disability accommodation from another angle.

The detials in the following have been changed, but the issues are ones I recently encountered in an investigation I was conducting.  Jane (not her real name) brought allegations that her new supervisor is discriminating against her based on her disability (she has difficulty sitting for long periods of time.)  She’s made this complaint because suddenly, after nearly 11 years with the same employer, she’s receiving poor performance reviews when her work hasn’t changed.  So, since there’s no other obvious basis for a poor review, it must be discrimination – right? 

When I speak with Jane’s new supervisor (he’s been there about 18 months), he tells me that everyone always complains to him about Jane: she’s rude to customers,  her co-workers have a hard time getting her to cooperate on anything, and because of her disability she’s away from her desk a lot.  I discover that she has never formally requested an accommodation for that alleged disability, but everyone assumed that since she said the doctor told her not to sit for long periods (undefined) they simply had to accommodate that, especially after she told them she’d sue if they didn’t accommodate her. 

And, of course, when I looked back at Jane’s years of performance reviews, guess what? She was consistently marked “above average” or “outstanding” in every category with no comments in any way indicating there were any issues.  No wonder she’s surprised there are issues!  The first year Jane had theese undocumented issues they were Jane’s problem.  Every year thereafter they are the supervisor’s problem.   

So, what to do now?  There are a few basic steps you in management need to take:

1.  Provide Jane with a well written job description to take to her medical provider.  She needs to ask that person to write a letter specifically stating what kind of accommodation is needed.  For instance, just saying “Jane can’t sit for long periods of time” is inadequate.  How long can she sit before she needs a break, and how long does that break need to be?

2.  Once you have this information, determine whether you can accommodate Jane and still get the work done.  For example, if Jane has a desk job but can only sit 10 minutes at a time before needing a 10 minute break, you may need to get her a stand-up desk since it is unlikely she’ll be able to accomplish all her work in half the time.

3.  You need to work with the new supervisor to ensure that performance expectations are clear and reasonable, and that they are communicated to Jane.  New supervisors get to have different standards and expectations – as long as they are reasonable and Jane has a reasonable length of time to adapt to them.

 Finally: make sure that you act on the basis of fact, not fear.  Just because Jane says she needs accommodation does not mean that she does.  Get the medical provider’s request and follow the steps.  Be respectful, but be clear that you have the authority to run your organization.  And, never, NEVER yield to intimidation: do your homework, but then if an employee threatens to call their lawyer or the rights agency, please hand them the phone.

 Thoughts? Questions?  Let us know!  ~ Daphne Schneider



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