Front Line Supervisors Fuel the Fire of Disability Discrimination Claims

Workers claiming job discrimination based on disability, religion or national origin surged to new highs last year, with disability discrimination charges leading the pack at a 10% increase over 2008.  The increase coincided with changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act last year that made it easier for people with epilepsy, diabetes and other treatable conditions to claim they are disabled.

Lead Supervisors:  First Responders to Disability Claims

While HR continues to bear the brunt of understanding and implementing the new changes and nuances, don’t  underestimate the role front line supervisors have in communicating with disabled employees. The attitude and responsiveness of supervisors often determine, more than physical barriers, whether an employee with a disability feels that s/he is being treated fairly. In fact, the words of front line supervisors – both verbal and in careless e-mail — are the single biggest source of evidence that can turn a nuisance claim into a “bet the company” lawsuit.

Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act:  What Supervisors Need to Know

As with all areas of employment law, you should reinforce to your supervisors that they consult with your HR department or legal counsel for additional information and specifics on company procedure.  Here are some additional ADAAA points to consider:

  • When it comes to disability requests, the revised ADA, i.e., the ADAAA,  shifts the emphasis from investigating (why or how  to accommodate) to what needs to be done.
  • When talking to an employee with a disability, supervisors shouldn’t ask questions about the condition itself. Instead, they should focus on job-related questions about the effect of the condition on the employee’s ability to do the job.
  • The ADAAA requires that accommodation be approached with an open mind (i.e., not begin by questioning the existence of the disability). As before, employers must honor the disabled employee’s medical confidentiality and may not explain to other employees why any resulting change is being made.
  • The supervisor may not be in a position to determine the legitimacy of a request for accommodation without medical input. Thus, employers can require employees to provide documentation from an employee’s health care provider about the disability and the need for accommodation. Supervisors should turn to their human resource professionals as they engage in this process with the employee.
  • Employees asking for an accommodation need not use any particular words and are encouraged to talk directly with their supervisor. Supervisors need to be able to recognize when an accommodation is being requested. Examples of accommodation requests can include references to doctor’s appointments, medical treatment, or specific problems (I’m having difficulty hearing other people on the phone).

For every minute spent preparing, an hour is earned.  This is especially true for HR professionals, who not only bear the direct responsibility, but also ensure that those in the line of fire have the backup they need.

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