When it comes to disability, there’s much for employers to be versed in, particularly as it relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One area often considered difficult for employers to navigate is when and how to conduct the interactive process for providing workplace accommodations.
What is the interactive process?
Just as it may sound, the interactive process is a conversation between the employee and their employer. Its purpose is to uncover the specifics of a disability and how it impacts the employee’s ability to do their job.
Employers may feel inclined to initiate a discussion with an employee as soon as it’s clear there is a need for an accommodation. While this is perfectly acceptable in some cases, there may be better paths forward in other scenarios. In situations where a disability isn’t obvious, or the impact on a job is not clear, employers may first receive the request for accommodation from the employee.
A formal written request for a “reasonable accommodation” is not required. A discussion with the employee, documented by the employer, will suffice as a request for an accommodation.
Requirements of the interactive process
Once a request is received, acting on the request as soon as possible is essential. Waiting to respond to a request, or worse ignoring it, could put employers in violation of the ADA.
When engaging in the interactive process, the first step is assigning responsibility to someone overseeing the process. If this person is not well-versed in the interactive process, materials and resources must be available to consult for guidance. They must also follow best practices, including documenting the entire process. This is important as it keeps all information readily available for all parties to reference, especially since so much happens informally over different communication channels, such as email and instant messaging.
Even if the employee’s condition appears straightforward, the employer will want to request medical documentation that outlines the nature of their condition. This documentation will help determine if the disability is covered by the ADA and if it requires reasonable accommodation. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), however, employers should be selective in the information they ask for. For example, requiring an employee to provide a complete medical record would be inappropriate. Only information related to the specific disabling condition is necessary to make the determination. This means outlining the exact information needed to assess the disability, the limitations on daily functions, and what accommodation is being requested.
Once a covered condition is confirmed and the impacts established, the employer should work to determine and identify a reasonable accommodation. While the employer is responsible for providing an accommodation, they are not required to provide one that creates undue hardship, such as excessive financial or business burdens.
What happens next?
Even after the determination is made as to what to provide the employee, the interactive process is still not complete. The employer should plan to keep the lines of communication open with the employee to understand what is needed on an ongoing basis. For example, the medical condition that precipitated the request may not be permanent, or the impacts on the employee and their ability to do their job may change. Maintaining the interactive process benefits both the employer and the employee to ensure the accommodation is still appropriate and effective.
There is much at stake for employers when it comes to ensuring the interactive process works. Properly training human resource staff and supervisors is key, as is ensuring appropriate legal guidance is available when questions arise.
Brown & Brown Absence Services Group has a team of professionals that have extensive experience in both short-term and long-term disability topics as well as workplace accommodations issues, including the interactive process. Contact us today to see how we can provide you with support and guidance in these areas.
Nothing herein is considered legal advice.