The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
A woman points at a graph and explains.


Getting the work done

Scenario 1: The Googled applicant

An office worker uses a laptop computerJeffrey recently completed a college degree in accounting and has applied for a job in a financial services firm with 37 employees. Anna, a partner in the firm, conducted Jeffrey’s interview. She found him to be well-qualified, poised, and pleasant during the interview.

After the interview, Anna did some online research on Jeffrey and found that he is a veteran who has been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She also learned that he has been active in support groups for veterans with post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). Though she was ready to hire Jeffrey based on his credentials and interview, she has now declined his job application because “he could be dangerous.”

Think about it. What needs to happen?

Anna has not only violated the ADA, she has also passed up an applicant who is likely to make a positive contribution to the business. Simply having a diagnosis of PTSI (or any other mental illness) does not constitute a credible direct threat under the law. There is no valid evidence to support the idea that an employee with PTSI poses a danger to others in the workplace. And there is nothing in Jeffrey’s application or conduct during the interview that would suggest he is likely to become violent if hired.

The takeaway

Anyone in this firm who is involved in hiring should become more aware of disability law and avoid making hiring decisions based on stereotypes or vague fears.

Scenario 2: The struggling designer

A kitchen designer shows a couple around in a showcase kitchenEllen has a hearing disability and has been working for one year as a kitchen designer in Upscale Designs, a design and contracting firm with 95 employees located in a large city. She is a solid performer and her customers are generally satisfied with her results. But she has had some difficulty with her customer load and is currently handling about 25% fewer customers than her colleagues in the kitchen design department.

Ellen uses high-tech hearing aids which bring her hearing to about 90% of what fully hearing people hear. Her speech is slightly impaired, but this does not seem to pose any problems during customer interactions. Though her colleagues are pleasant to her, they do not seek her out for conversation. Her boss originally thought she just needed a little more time to learn the ropes, but things aren’t improving. He is now wondering if her hearing problem is standing in the way of bringing her up to speed.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

Ellen’s boss has assumed that her hearing impairment is the problem. But this assumption may not be correct. Ellen’s boss needs to listen to Ellen’s take on the situation. If he does, he’ll find out that Ellen needs training in using the design software more effectively. There are several features that Ellen doesn’t know how to use efficiently because no one has coached her on this aspect of her job. Since Ellen is “out of the loop” of everyday employee interactions, she’s experiencing a longer learning curve than other employees.

The takeaway

Ellen’s hearing disability isn’t the main problem. Being marginalized in workplace interactions is. Ellen just needs a good coach or mentor.

The scenarios, including all names, characters, and incidents portrayed on this page are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, or products is intended or should be inferred.