Even something as simple as a statement that an employee has changed his or her medications can be treated as notice from an employee that an accommodation might be needed. An employee need not use any particular words or phrasing to request an accommodation; he or she need not even use the word “accommodation.” The key is that the employee has given his or her manager notice that a health condition may be affecting the employee’s ability to do his or her job. Employers may want to train managers to recognize these types of statements as notice that a reasonable accommodation may be needed and initiate the interactive process upon hearing such statements.
Employers may also want to train managers not ask the employee who changed his or her medications about his or her diagnosis or underlying condition, or about specific details about the medication or the health condition. That information goes well beyond what a manager needs to know about one of his or her employees, and some employers do not want their managers being imbued with this type of knowledge. Similarly, employers may want to train managers to refrain from asking employees when they expect to be “better” and from making assumptions about an employee’s ability to perform his or her essential job functions.
Instead, employers can train managers to recognize the signs that an accommodation might be needed and get the human resources (HR) department involved. The HR department is generally better situated to have discussions with an employee about how his or her condition or medication affects his or her ability to function—particularly with respect to his or her essential job duties—and what sort of accommodation(s) the employee—or his or her health care provider—thinks will enable the employee to perform those essential job functions. This is the essence of the interactive process required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (Note that employers are not required to provide an employee’s preferred or ideal accommodation, but through the interactive process, the employer and employee can reach an agreement on an accommodation that is reasonable and will work for both the employee and the employer.)
Whether an accommodation is “reasonable” depends highly on the specific circumstances of the workplace and the employee’s role in the workplace. For example, if an employee requests time off to adjust to a new medication, in many instances, providing that time off that will constitute a reasonable accommodation. If an employee asks to be excused from any sort of performance counseling while he or she adjusts to his or her medication, it is less likely to be considered a reasonable request. The purpose of an accommodation is to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job, not to excuse him or her from performing those functions. An employee’s disability-qualifying health condition does not shield him or her from any future performance counseling or discipline.
Note that, in the case of fighting or other serious misconduct, employers can train managers to proceed with discipline for the dangerous behavior. If an employee is fighting in the workplace, a request to overlook it is most likely not going to be a reasonable accommodation because fighting is a safety threat to others. But, if an employee makes a statement regarding the change in his or her medications in the context of more typical performance counseling, then it’s possible the employer will need to provide some form of accommodation. In the case of underperformance, a manager may decide to overlook past mistakes but can remind the employee that he or she will be held to normal performance standards going forward. If the employee believes he or she will not be able to meet those standards until he or she adjusts to the medication, then the manager or HR representative may suggest a temporary leave of absence to adjust to the medication as a reasonable accommodation.
Employers can train managers to recognize signs that a health condition could be affecting an employee’s ability to perform his or her essential job functions and then quickly loop in the human resources department to assist with the interactive process. Managers need not shy away from holding employees—even those with accommodations—to regular performance standards, but they can benefit from partnering with HR and actively participating in the interactive process for the best chance of finding an accommodation that is reasonable for the employer and will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.
A version of this article first appeared on SHRM Online.