HR professionals play a vital role in processing reasonable accommodations requests that protect the company and its employees. In addition to establishing internal policies, they also handle potential disputes and safeguard sensitive personal information associated with ADA requests. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines reasonable accommodations as “any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities.” The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 established a more inclusive list of qualifying disabilities and holds employers accountable for determining the reasonability of a request based on a variety of circumstances. We’ve outlined a few considerations for employers, and errors to avoid when handling ADA requests.
BCH Tip: Download our 10 Common ADA Mistakes sheet for HR insights on handling accommodations requests.
The best way to prepare for employee requests is to create an internal accommodations policy so the company is equipped to handle one-off or complex requests. Because HR is at the forefront of the company’s employment processes and handling internal legal risks, all responses to ADA requests should be addressed by HR personnel. This also ensures all requests are processed equally and according to the most up-to-date compliance regulations. Of course, managers should know how to react to inquiries from employees or potential candidates even though their role in the process is limited. Take time to ensure managers understand how to follow these procedures by issuing compliance training on an annual basis or incorporating friendly reminders into toolbox talk meetups.
Establishing Essential Functions
HR professionals are responsible for keeping a detailed description of each job’s function and conducting research for potential accommodations based on the unique needs of each individual. Accommodations will vary depending on an individual’s disability, their position and the role it serves in the company. Keep in mind, job descriptions and associated functions are regularly referenced in legal disputes regarding accommodation requests. The more organized, precise and consistent your descriptions are, the easier it will be to plead your case and prevent escalations, should an accommodation request lead to legal issues.
So, what is an essential function? When the success of a business depends on the completion of a task assigned to a specific role, that task is considered an essential function. The most common way to gauge whether a function is essential is to determine if that job exists to perform the function in question. For example, a paralegal might be required to read through documents and find key information related to a case. In this situation, reading and comprehension are essential functions for that job. If there are a limited number of people able to perform the function due to the business’s circumstances or the level of expertise needed to perform the task, it is also essential. For example, companies that work with foreign countries might hire someone who is fluent in a specific language in order to conduct business with that region. In the same way, an administrative assistant role has several essential functions that the company depends upon, such as answering calls, disseminating information to appropriate employees and scheduling appointments. Other team members might not have the ability to stop what they’re doing to address clients or potential customers. Once employers can identify the essential functions related to a role, they can respond based on those definitions and the needs of the employee.
Avoiding Accommodation Oversights
There are a few mistakes HR professionals should avoid in handling ADA-related situations. Due to the company’s risk of liability and legal concerns, it’s important to follow the procedures outlined by the compliance team. Here are a few common mistakes HR team members should avoid:
- Labeling jobs as essential based on the manager’s interpretation of the function instead of conducting your own research as an HR professional. While the manager or supervisor might have some details you can use in your investigation, insight is often limited by their understanding of the accommodations process.
- Discussing details about the disability with the employee’s manager (unless the disability affects the way the manager engages with said employee). All accommodations and requests contain sensitive personal information that should only be communicated if necessary. For instance, a manager who hires an employee with a hearing impairment will need to understand how this affects their ability to communicate with one another.
- Rejecting an employee’s request without following the due process. If the request seems unreasonable or impractical, it might still be feasible. Following and documenting the process is crucial in protecting the company from legal risks, especially when a request isn’t accepted by one or more parties.
- Eliminating essential functions as an accommodation, even for a short period of time. It’s important to remember any future argument to reinstate that function will be difficult to make once the task is deemed non-essential for that role. If you must temporarily suspend a function, make sure to document an in-depth explanation of all factors contributing to that decision.
- Ending accommodation dialogue if no accommodation currently exists for their situation. General solutions, such as reducing work hours, reassignment or even leaves of absence, can provide short-term assistance needed in order for an employee to get back on his or her feet and work their way back to 100% capacity.
- Basing the accommodation request on the employee’s performance and not following the process. All requests should be considered equally, regardless of the individual’s performance.
If your business is in the process of establishing an accommodations policy, or if you have questions about any of the above, feel free to contact our benefits advisors for customized employee benefit programs. You can also visit the BCH website for helpful blog articles, downloadable resources and HR insights. As always, BCH is here to help you with employee benefits consulting and compliance solutions when it matters.