“I haven’t been feeling so good, and I wonder if you could help me out” – employee to supervisor.

That simple statement could be enough to trigger your organization’s duty to accommodate a disabled employee. And if the supervisor doesn’t know how to respond, you could be in legal hot water from the get-go.

Why’s that? Because of something the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) calls the “interactive process.” As soon as an employer is put on notice that an employee may have a disability, and the person asks for a job accommodation to deal with it, the employer must engage in a good-faith discussion of whether a reasonable accommodation is possible.

Think back to the opening sentence and you can see how the line supervisor is often the first one to learn about a possible disability, and hear the accommodation request.

What’s tricky is that accommodation requests don’t have to be couched in any particular language, and don’t have to use the words “accommodate” or “accommodation.” An employee may say something like:

  • “I hurt my back and I need to get off the production line for a couple days.”
  • “I can’t stand for more than 10 minutes without pain. Can you get me a stool?”
  • “I’m getting migraines from the bright lights on the show floor. Could I work in the stockroom for a while?”

Any of these statements might qualify as a request for accommodation under the ADA, triggering the interactive process. And while line supervisors probably won’t be running the process through to a resolution – that’s more likely to be HR’s or higher management’s job – they need to know how to recognize an accommodation request, and how to react properly. If the supervisor puts the employee off, or doesn’t take the request seriously, the employee might have legal grounds to sue for a refusal to accommodate.

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