HR Tip of the Week

An Employee Asked for an Accommodation, Now What?

An Employee Asked for an Accommodation, Now What?

Under certain laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants and employees with a disability, or sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Some states have similar requirements that apply to smaller employers, and some states have laws that require accommodations in additional circumstances, such as when an employee has a pregnancy-related condition.

What is a reasonable accommodation, when are you required to provide one, and how should you respond if an employee asks you for one?

Q: What is a reasonable accommodation?

A: Generally, a reasonable accommodation is a change in the work environment or in the way work is customarily done that enables an individual to perform the essential functions of the job and enjoy equal employment opportunities.

Q: What are some examples of reasonable accommodations for a disability?

A: Some examples of reasonable accommodations for a disability include, but are not limited to:

  • Reallocating or redistributing non-essential job functions
  • Altering when and/or how a task is performed
  • Modifying work schedules
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment
  • Providing paid or unpaid leave
  • Allowing the employee to perform light duty work
  • Making facilities accessible to the individual

Visit the Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for additional possible accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

Q: What are some examples of reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs?

A: Some examples of reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices include, but are not limited to:

  • Exceptions to dress codes
  • Additional breaks for religious practices, such as prayer
  • Paid or unpaid leave for religious observances

Q: What should I do if an employee asks for an accommodation?

A: Promptly begin an "interactive process," or dialogue, with the employee to identify what, if any, reasonable accommodation should be provided. The conversation should be limited to the nature of the issue generating the request, the individual's functional limitations, and alternative accommodations that may be effective in meeting the individual’s needs. After implementing an accommodation, periodically check in with the employee to ensure that the accommodation is effective. Remember to document each step of the process.

Q: Does the employee specifically have to ask for a "reasonable accommodation" to start the interactive process?

A: Under the ADA, the employee doesn't need to use the words "reasonable accommodation." The employee only needs to notify you (orally or in writing) that he or she needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. For example, "I'm having trouble getting to work on time because of medical treatments I'm undergoing," would be considered a request for a reasonable accommodation. If the initial communication is unclear, ask the individual if they are requesting a reasonable accommodation. Employers should train supervisors on how to recognize and respond to a request for an accommodation.

Q: Can I require documentation of the need for a disability-related reasonable accommodation?

A: You may ask employees for reasonable medical documentation only if the disability or the need for an accommodation isn’t obvious. Even in those cases, you may only ask for information that is necessary to process the accommodation request. For example, you may seek information that is needed to establish that the individual has a disability, and that the disability creates functional limitations that require a reasonable accommodation. However, you may not seek an employee’s complete medical file.

Q: Under the ADA, do I have to provide the exact accommodation that the employee requests?

A: Generally, if there is more than one accommodation available, employers can consider alternative accommodations as long as the accommodation effectively removes the workplace barrier and allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.

Q: Can I force an employee to use an accommodation for a disability that he or she doesn't want?

A: Under the ADA, an employer may not require an individual with a disability to accept an accommodation. Consider consulting legal counsel to discuss possible next steps if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job and refuses to accept any reasonable accommodation.

Q: During the interactive process, an employee with a disability asked me to change his manager as the accommodation. Must I do so?

A: While the manager may need to adjust some of his or her management practices as a reasonable accommodation, the employer is not required to change the employee's manager as an accommodation. For example, the workplace barrier for the employee could be that the manager always gives instructions orally and the employee's disability makes it difficult for the employee to understand. In this case, a reasonable accommodation could be for the supervisor to communicate with the employee in writing.

Q: An employee asked for an exception to our dress code for religious reasons, but I am not sure the employee's religious beliefs are sincere. Are there any guidelines that establish what constitutes a sincerely held religious belief?

A: Generally, employers should assume that an employee's request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. A religious belief or practice can be unique to the individual. Just because a practice deviates from commonly followed religious beliefs, does not make it an insincere belief. However, if you have objective factors that might call into question an employee's sincerity (such as inconsistent behavior, timing of the request, similar past requests made for secular reasons), seek legal counsel to discuss how to address your concerns. Ultimately, it's a best practice to engage in the interactive process to determine whether an accommodation is required.

Conclusion:

Understand applicable federal and state laws that address reasonable accommodation and have written policies and procedures in place. Additionally, train supervisors on how to recognize and respond to reasonable accommodation requests.

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