What Is a “Reasonable” Accommodation?
By Roberta Etcheverry, CPDM
Diversified Management Group
When employers consider accommodations for disabled employees, their first question for us is usually “what is and what is not a ‘reasonable accommodation,’ and who gets to decide?”
Employers express frustration over what they see as a lack of bright-line definitions from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which monitors and enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those definitions are intentionally broad to drive employers into a fact-based, case-by-case analysis when determining what an employee with a disability may need to support job performance and whether providing the accommodation is ultimately reasonable.
So how exactly does an employer conduct that analysis? This is first and foremost a case-by-case process. Through an open, back-and-forth dialogue, commonly known as the interactive process, the employer and employee discuss exactly how the disability is affecting their ability to successfully and safely perform their job. At this stage of accommodation exploration, the employee is typically asked to provide appropriate documentation from their doctor. The job description is an important tool in reviewing the essential functions of the job, but does not replace a “reality check” of the job tasks actually performed by the individual employee. These are specific to the location where they work, the department they work in, and other factors that drive variations in how the job is performed.
The second factor affecting the definition of reasonable: in the end, the accommodation must be effective to be deemed reasonable. That is, does the accommodation support successful performance of the essential functions of the job? Employers are not required to remove essential functions as an accommodation, nor do they need to lower productivity or performance standards. Reasonable accommodations are not intended to require employers and employees to “settle for less” — that is never the goal nor a satisfactory outcome. The intent of the law is to encourage employers to provide necessary assistance to support employees with disabilities in being able to perform their job. This is a mutually beneficial outcome, as is what a disabled employee wants as well.
Employers have a right to consider the other side of the equation as well; while it may be effective for the employee, is it effective for our organization? Does it create an undue hardship? In considering these questions, many employers focus on the financial burden of providing the accommodation. When considering if an accommodation is prohibitively expensive, remember that the financial resources of the entire organization are considered, not just one department’s operating budget; arguing that an accommodation is too expensive may be a tough point to win in court. Even so, employers should discuss with employees the impact of the accommodation on business operations, including the impact on coworkers and their work load. The interactive process must always balance the needs of the employee and the needs of the organization.
Finally, the interactive process should not hone in on one accommodation idea exclusively, especially when there are concerns about the “reasonableness” of that approach. Employers should explore a variety of options, both to show their good-faith efforts in attempting to accommodate the employee and because that increases the odds of finding an effective solution. Employees may insist on one accommodation, but the employer has the final decision here, provided that the accommodation is effective. A first and unsuccessful attempt to accommodate may not end the employer’s obligation. If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying until you have fully explored all options. Reasonable accommodations that help an employee continue to work productively while supporting business operations are a “win-win” worth the effort.