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Test before deciding on employee’s limits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Shirley Hoffman was a whiz at her indexing job at Caterpillar Inc. She moved faster than almost anyone, even though she was born without a left arm below the elbow. Several accommodations, including rearranging some items in her work space, allowed her to do the job.

But when Hoffman asked to be trained on the department's high-speed scanner, her supervisor said "No way." He didn't think Hoffman could possibly perform that key position fast enough to meet production demands, particularly because the operator frequently needs to clear paper jams.

Hoffman sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming she was denied training. A lower court tossed out her case, but the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals let the case go to trial. Its reasoning: The ADA specifically prohibits discrimination in regard to "job training," and the supervisor's comments showed a discriminatory intent. (Hoffman v. Caterpillar Inc., No. 99-3023, 7th Cir., 2001)

Advice: You can deny training to an employee as long as you have a legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reason. Just give that worker the benefit of the doubt. Test the worker in the job first, document your efforts, then decide.

In this case, Caterpillar didn't have to train Hoffman on the high-speed scanner if she wasn't capable of running it. A test, not an assumption, is one legal way to make that decision.

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