ADA Guidelines: Don't create hostile workplaces for people with disabilities

by on January 14, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

The ADA lawsuit trap: A Disability Hostile Workplace

You don’t necessarily have to fire or demote disabled people to lay yourself open for legal trouble.
Just like the laws on sexual harassment, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has a “hostile work environment” provision. This is a legal net that can catch you an ADA lawsuit if an employee manages to show he or she was a target of unjustified criticism or abusive remarks on account of a disability, or perceived disability.

Allie Benzetti had severe vision problems. The company had installed a special computer to try to accommodate his bad eyesight, but he kept having problems with production volume and accuracy.

Supervisor Paul Steelman finished writing up Allie’s evaluation and gave it to him. “This is terrible,” Allie said. “I deserve better.”

“I don’t think you do,” Paul said. “I’ve documented every point I made, and I think I’ve been more than fair.”

“So you’re putting me in some kind of Improvement Program?” Allie said. “What does that mean?”

“You have 120 days to show improvement in the key areas I listed,” Paul said. “If you don’t, we move to the next stage, which could be suspension or termination.”

Allie shook his head. “I thought you were a regular fella,” he said. “Now I see you’re just one of those guys climbing the corporate ladder, stepping on the heads of the little people on the way up.”

“Oh, come on,” Paul said, momentarily losing his temper. “You are milking your eye problems for all they’re worth, and just because you can’t see properly doesn’t mean I can’t see when you’re goofing off. Which you do a lot of the time.”

Later on, Allie filed an ADA lawsuit over having been placed on the Performance Improvement Program, and over what he alleged was a hostile work environment due to his disability. In court, he testified with relish about what Paul had said regarding his goofing off and milking his problems.

The company asked to have Allie’s suit thrown out, but the court wouldn’t do it. The company faced two unappetizing options: a trial before a jury that would likely sympathize with the vision-impaired employee, or paying Allie to withdraw the ADA lawsuit. (Pantazes v. Jackson)

How the supervisor slipped up:

Paul should have kept his temper, of course. But he also could have done more to facilitate Allie’s work on the special-order computer, perhaps by calling in IT to adjust the settings or modify the software.

ADA guidelines for Managers:
Courts and especially juries are sensitive to the appearance of a company treating a disabled worker shabbily or cruelly. This makes it particularly important for supervisors to treat disabled employees even-handedly, professionally, and even kindly where possible – and make sure other employees do, too.

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