“I thought I told you that you weren’t obliged to find alternative work for Bette Henry,” HR manager Callie Thoroughgood reminded supervisor Micky Rohrbach. “You could have laid her off, since with her bad back she can’t do her job anymore and she’s exhausted her leave.”
“You did tell me,” Micky said. “And I know that technically we don’t have any light-duty assignments in my department. But I felt sorry for her, so I exempted her from heavy lifting.”
“I’m sure you acted out of kindness,” Callie said. “But you created a big problem for us.”
“You mean with Bob Carpenter?” Micky asked.
Complaints and counter-complaints
“Yes,” Callie said. “You know of Bob’s constant complaints about the ‘cushy job’ you gave Bette. And his grousing about the fact that he has to pull more weekend duty in her place. Well, now Bette’s complained to me that Bob is harassing her because of her disability.”
“I looked into it, and I’m satisfied Bob’s complaints don’t amount to harassment,” Callie told Micky. “But now you have to make sure that Bob and Bette don’t ever work together. I know that’s going to be challenging given the scheduling issues you have, but it’s absolutely necessary.”
A tough situation
“It sure is going to be hard, but I’ll do my best,” Micky said, scratching his head in perplexity.
“You’ll have to make it work,” Callie said. “I told both of them that any more quarreling about this would mean termination. You have to put them in a position where they don’t see each other and get started again.”
“OK,” Micky said.
A few weeks later, the company terminated Bette after her doctor imposed permanent restrictions barring her from lifting more than five pounds.
She sued, claiming the company retaliated against her for complaining that she was being harassed in violation of federal disability law.
Did Bette win her lawsuit?
No, Bette didn’t win. The court said there was no reason to suppose she was terminated in retaliation for her disability complaints.
In fact, the court said, Bette had no valid disability complaints. Her back injury made it impossible for her to perform the essential functions of her job, and there was no accommodation that would have made it possible.
The court decision favored the employer, but no thanks to supervisor Micky. His attempt to accommodate Bette when the company had no obligation to do so only complicated the situation. By allowing her to avoid the lifting that was part of her job, he sowed discontent among her co-workers, and provoked the complaints that she chose to take as harassment.
Takeaway for supervisors: Disability accommodation is legally complicated, and you’re not best-placed to make decisions about it. If the issue of accommodation comes up, consult with higher management and/or HR before taking action.
Cite: Povey v. City of Jeffersonville, Indiana, No. 11-1896, 7th Cir., 10/4/12. Fictionalized for dramatic impact.
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