Supervising “Reasonable Accommodation”
Supervisors must understand their “role” in the “reasonable accommodation” process.
Agencies have defined very different roles for supervisors when it comes to “reasonable accommodation” requests. At one extreme, some agencies provide no role whatsoever for their supervisors. All “reasonable accommodation” requests go through specialists from the initial request by the employee to the agency decision on the request. At the other end of the spectrum, there are agencies that have the supervisor intimately involved in the decision process with the assistance of a team of “reasonable accommodation” specialists. Regardless of the approach, supervisors must be educated to understand that this is one of the most complicated areas of EEO law and to understand their role in the process.
When the supervisor has no role in the “reasonable accommodation” process.
Sometimes supervisors complain that they never hear about the accommodation that has been made until they challenge the employee about an employment issue only to be told by the employee of a “reasonable accommodation” that modifies the employee’s responsibility. The supervisor is surprised and, understandably, feels that their authority has been undermined in the eyes of the employee. It is important that the supervisor be notified when an accommodation is granted so that the supervisor understands how to manage the employee properly, particularly when the agency has taken the supervisor out of the “reasonable accommodation” process. Supervisors also need to understand the complexities involved so that they appreciate the fact that the agency has relieved them of the extremely complex decisions that are sometimes involved in “reasonable accommodation” requests.
When the supervisor is involved in the decision to grant a “reasonable accommodation.”
We see supervisors, such as the one in last month’s Fair Practice article, who do not fully understand their role and as a result, make decisions that are contrary to the law, or that undermine the interest of the agency.
For example, where the agency allows supervisors to be involved in the decision, it is important that supervisors understand that they should never deny or grant a request for “reasonable accommodation” without first checking with their team of specialists. Denying a valid request can obviously create liability for the agency. Granting a request, where it later becomes apparent that the employee did not have a “qualifying disability” (a highly technical decision), can create its own complications for the agency.
Educating supervisors is critical regardless of their role in the process.
In either case, it is important that supervisors understand that disability law and “reasonable accommodation” decisions are among the most difficult issues in EEO law. This is why agencies uniformly have specialists more heavily involved in these decisions. Regardless of their role in the process, educating supervisors as to the complexities of the law and regulations will help them understand their role in the process, and will help the agency significantly reduce complaints and lawsuits involving “reasonable accommodation.”
Last month’s featured case is a good example of why this is so important. An employee with an unimaginably debilitating physical disability was still able to perform at or above expectations with a most unusual reasonable accommodation. However the unreasonable and malicious demands of an uninformed supervisor made life much more difficult on the employee for a period of years while the complaint process worked its way to a decision. This was a disservice to both the employee and the agency.
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