The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
A group of office workers sit at computers in a modern open plan office


A simple step-by-step process

Scenario 1: Tony and the short breaks

A landscape architect takes notes on a pad while standing in a gardenTony is a landscape architect at Green Acres Landscape Design, a firm with 75 employees. About 3 months ago, he began feeling tired and had vision problems. His doctor ran some tests that showed Tony had Type 1 diabetes. Because it had been undiagnosed for so long, Tony had some complications. He went on medical leave to deal with his condition and returned to work a month later.

After a week back at work, Tony was struggling. He was often tired and had to stop work several times a day for a few minutes to check his blood sugar. He talked to his supervisor and requested an accommodation to deal with these issues. His boss got back to him a week later, saying Tony already had the accommodation of work leave, so another accommodation would not be granted. Tony was surprised and saddened by this decision. He felt he had no choice but to quit the job, take a little more time off, and then reapply to another firm.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

The duty to accommodate employees requires that the employee and the employer talk about what might work for the employee. When Tony asked for an accommodation, the correct response would have been, “what are you having difficulty with and why?” The conversation allows the employer to determine if they can provide a reasonable accommodation to allow Tony to continue being productive in his position. Instead, Green Acres lost an employee who will be difficult (and expensive) to replace. And they have risked an ADA charge.

The accommodation Tony might’ve needed (a few short breaks during the day or exchanging marginal job tasks with a co-worker) probably would not constitute undue hardship for this company. Green Acres assumed that, because Tony already had used one accommodation (1-month leave), he was not entitled to another. So, they failed to engage in a good faith effort to find an accommodation that would work.

The takeaway

Green Acres assumed too quickly that providing a return-to-work accommodation constituted undue hardship and failed to engage in a good faith effort to find a reasonable accommodation for Tony. Undue hardship is determined on a case by case basis. But it’s safe to assume that the accommodation Tony would’ve needed would not constitute undue hardship for this firm.

Scenario 2: Tyler and the customer load

A woman looks up while sitting at her deskTyler is a support specialist for Mesa IT Services, a rapidly expanding firm with 152 employees that provides IT support for businesses in their region. A few months ago, Tyler started feeling dizzy and had numbness in her limbs. After running several tests, her doctor told her she had multiple sclerosis.

Tyler was still in shock and adjusting to her medications when she returned to work 2 weeks later. Though she was tired and having some side effects from her new medications, she tried to keep up. But she soon found herself slipping behind. She requested a meeting with her manager and told him she was struggling now, but thought she’d get better after a couple weeks once she adjusted to her medications. Her manager gently reminded her that all support specialists needed to pull their own workload. He said they’d give it another month and see how she was doing. But if she was still behind, they’d need to “look at all options.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t improve. Tyler’s boss called her in a month later and told her that his budget didn’t allow for lowered productivity. So, the best thing would be for her to quit her job and then reapply when she was better. Tyler was disappointed. Her productivity hadn’t dropped that much and she thought she would be able to meet her customer load if she just had a few adjustments. Also, she knew that a co-worker who was training for a marathon had been allowed to reduce his customer case load.

Think about it. What needs to happen?

Mesa Services has made a mistake that many rapidly growing small businesses have made. They’ve cut corners, and trained their leaders inadequately. Managers/supervisors are often on the front line of disability issues and accommodation requests among employees.

In this case, Tyler’s boss has, essentially, fired her without exploring whether a reasonable accommodation would be an option. This is a violation of the ADA. Employers are required to accommodate known disabilities unless this causes undue hardship. Tyler’s boss should’ve recognized that Tayler has a disability covered under the ADA and the accommodation process should’ve been triggered. With an accommodation, it’s likely Tayler could have met productivity standards.

But apart from violating the ADA, this action was bad for business. It sends clear messages to all employees: We don’t tolerate disability here and We don’t fairly and uniformly apply our policies regarding productivity standards.

Mesa Services needs to do two things. First, they need to better train managers/supervisors about disability and how to recognize and respond to an accommodation request. Second, they need to consider creating a designated, centralized accommodation process where the expertise and funding needed for accommodations would not be left up to managers or supervisors.

The takeaway

Ensure that all managers and supervisors fully understand their role in the accommodation process of your company.

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.