As you probably know, there’s something of a Catch-22 in the law when it comes to employee disabilities. On the one hand, supervisors can’t come out and ask employees, “Are you disabled?” That’s likely to violate state and/or federal disability laws. On the other hand, if employers become aware of an employee’s disability, they’re obliged to initiate an “interactive process” — the conversation about possible accommodations required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The solution? Train these managers to recognize the signals that an employee may have a disability, so they can inform HR and/or start the “interactive process” with the employee.
What to look for
So what should you train managers to look for?
Here are some of the more common ways a supervisor may become aware of an employee disability:
- The employee tells the supervisor. This is pretty obvious, but supervisors should know that while they cannot legally question an employee about a disability, they can listen and take notes if an employee comes to them.
- A co-worker or family member tells the supervisor. This may not take the form of someone saying “Employee X has a disability,” but may instead come in the form of information about the employee taking medication or having a serious physical condition. Again, the supervisor should take notes so that HR or higher management can later assess the reliability of the information.
- A supervisor overhears two employees discussing seeing the same orthopedist, or psychiatrist, or other medical specialist.
- An employee makes several sick leave requests stating that the person needs to see someone about a serious health condition.
- An employee applies for FMLA leave for his or her own serious health condition. The requirements of the FMLA and ADA are different, and not every FMLA-qualifying condition amounts to a disability. But an FMLA leave request may be a tip-off that an employee does indeed have a condition that could constitute a disability.
- A supervisor receives a note from a doctor requesting that the employee be allowed extra breaks during the day due to fatigue from treatment.
- A supervisor observes a significant change in work performance or workplace conduct. Suppose, for instance, that a usually reliable employee starts missing deadlines. Or a usually even-tempered person starts yelling at co-workers for what seem like petty reasons. The supervisor may want to call the person in and ask if he or she is aware of anything that has caused the change(s). This prompt gives the employee a chance to disclose any health concern, if the person wishes to.
Remember, front-line supervisors usually aren’t the ones who will make the final call on any disability accommodation. But they need to be aware of the signs of employee disability, and you need to train them to recognize these signs.
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