Guilt by ADA Association

by on February 26, 2010 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

You’d think a manager couldn’t possibly violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by having a good heart and good intentions. But you’d be wrong.

Check out this brief scenario:

Supervisor Margie is trying to decide whom to send to a three-day training session in Las Vegas. One of her direct reports, Joanne, is an obvious choice, but Margie hesitates. Joanne’s two-year-old son has Down’s Syndrome and Joanne has been looking tired lately. “Poor Joanne,” Margie thinks. “I couldn’t possibly ask her to take all that time away from her child. It’s too big a sacrifice.” So Margie scratches Joanne from the list and sends someone else.

Margie just violated the ADA in a big way. Do you know why?

She treated Joanne differently because of her disabled child.

Now, if Joanne had been in a wheelchair, Margie probably would have seen danger signs all over this situation. She never would deny an opportunity to an employee who’s disabled. But this was different. After all, Joanne’s not disabled. So it never dawned on Margie that the ADA would apply in this case.

It does. The ADA includes a rather obscure provision known as “disability association.” It means that you can’t discriminate against an employee based on their “association” with a disabled person. That could include family members, friends, colleagues or anyone else they come in contact with.

For example, let’s say Margie manages another employee who’s active in AIDS-related causes. The employee doesn’t have AIDS; he isn’t disabled. But he’s passionate and vocal about his volunteer work, and Margie notices that this puts off some of his more conservative co-workers. So when a supervisor’s position comes open, she promotes someone else who will be more “acceptable” to the team.

Oops. She did it again.

These kinds of cases can be tricky for HR managers to spot. After all, the person with the disability may not even be an employee. You may not find out about it until a lawsuit lands on your desk. That’s why it’s important to educate your front-line managers about disability association discrimination and how to avoid it.

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