When faced with an employee who may have a physical or mental disability, a manager's legal antenna should go up right away. The ADA requires employers to engage in an interactive dialog with employees to determine whether a disability can be accommodated. Do it wrong, and you're probably looking at a lawsuit. Here's how to handle the conversation.
1. An employee does not have to use any magic words, such as “reasonable accommodation,” when asking for one. One need only let the employer know, verbally or in writing, and in plain English, that a change is needed for medical reasons.
2. An employer may ask (but is not required to ask) whether an employee needs a reasonable accommodation even if the employee has not asked for one.
3. After learning of the need for a reasonable accommodation, the employer and the employee should engage in an informal process to clarify what the employee needs. The employer may ask the employee relevant questions that will enable it to make an informed decision about the request, including what type of reasonable accommodation is needed.
4. There are no hard and fast rules about this interactive process. In many cases, the disability and the type of accommodation required will be obvious, with little or no need for any discussion. In other situations, identifying an effective accommodation may require the employer to ask questions concerning the nature of the disability and the individual’s functional limitations.
5. When the disability or the need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask the individual for reasonable documentation about the disability.
6. The employer may choose among several possible reasonable accommodations, as long as the chosen accommodation is effective. Thus, as part of the interactive process, the employer may offer alternative suggestions for reasonable accommodations and discuss their effectiveness in removing workplace barriers.
7. The employer should respond as quickly as possible to a request for reasonable accommodation, to engage in an interactive process and to provide the decided-upon reasonable accommodation. As was the case in Talley, an unreasonable delay can be construed as an ADA violation by the employer.
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