If an employee comes to you and says they have a disability, your first responsibility as an employer is to talk to them about it; this is the “interactive process” required by the ADAAA. Don’t panic or freeze up; disabilities are seldom a workplace crisis (unless you refuse to deal with them – then you will probably hear from a lawyer soon and it will be a crisis). Make it a real conversation, ask questions, and listen to what they have to say.
Look at the job description for the employee’s position and find the essential tasks. (This is why you wrote job descriptions, or at least one reason.) Find out what job tasks the disability will affect and how. See if the employee has any suggestions for ways to get the work done in different ways.
If you like, you can get a medical opinion, certifying the disability. To make best use of this, include the job description in your request to the doctor and ask what tasks will be difficult for the employee and with what restrictions. To be safe, remind them not to send you any confidential or GINA-protected information.
Work with the employee to find a solution. A business is required to provide a reasonable accommodation, if one exists, but it does not have to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation. Reasonable means that it does not create an undue hardship on the business or other employees.
Any employee is expected to fulfill the essential functions of their job, so if attendance at certain hours is required, as in retail sales, then someone who needs flexible hours will have a hard time in that position. However, just because something has always been done one way doesn’t mean it can’t be done a different way equally effectively; a dictation program might be a reasonable accommodation for someone with sight problems who needs to enter information.
There are two good resources for finding ways to accommodate an employee with a disability:
Tax credits may be available for accommodations; visit irs.gov or disabilities.gov to find out. Other potential sources of funding for accommodations that require expense are vocational rehabilitation and veterans or VA programs.
The benefits of accommodating an employee with a disability is not just that you will stay out of trouble with lawsuits; it also gives you a way to retain an employee in whom you have invested time and money in training, who has experience in your business, and who will likely be more loyal in response to your help.
Thanks to Jim Nys for a great presentation!