Supervisor’s Role in Workplace Accommodations
Administered By Human Resource Services
At the University of Northern Iowa, we believe that all individuals deserve a workplace where they can thrive and realize their full potential. We understand that in order to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, we must provide individualized support to employees with serious health conditions and/or disabilities.
Sometimes this support comes in the form of reasonable accommodations when employees face barriers in the workplace. A reasonable accommodation is defined as any modification or adjustment to a job or work environment, or to a policy or procedure, that enables an employee with a disability to perform their essential job functions.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and harassment based on a person’s physical or mental disability. In the workplace, employers must ensure all qualified job seekers and employees have equal access to all the benefits and privileges of employment-related activities, such as recruitment, compensation, promotions, and benefits.
This information is intended to assist supervisors with understanding their role in the reasonable accommodation process and supporting employees while remaining compliant with ADA regulations.
Any employee who is considered disabled under the law, regardless of position or tenure, may qualify for reasonable accommodations. To be eligible for reasonable accommodations under the ADA, an employee must have an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or a record of such an impairment.
Your role as a supervisor is not to determine if an employee is eligible for reasonable accommodations but to recognize when an employee is encountering barriers and may need assistance in order to perform their job functions effectively. Human Resource Services (HRS) will determine employee eligibility for an accommodation after reviewing their request and any necessary documentation from their healthcare provider.
Keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. Invisible disabilities may include mental health issues, chronic pain, neurological disorders, diabetes, learning disabilities, vision/hearing impairments, etc. When an employee is eligible, we accommodate them whether or not their disabilities are obvious to others.
NOTE: Best practice is to assume every condition could be covered under the ADA. It is imperative you reach out to HRS as soon as you become aware of a possible need for a reasonable accommodation.
Not all employees with disabilities or health conditions will require the same accommodation and some employees with known disabilities may not require any workplace accommodations. Each accommodation request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis considering the employee’s disability needs, their job responsibilities, and situation.
Once you learn of an accommodation request, you should contact HRS and review the employee’s job description to determine the essential and marginal functions of the position as well as the physical requirements, if applicable to the employee’s request.
A reasonable accommodation may involve:
- Making an existing facility readily accessible.
- Modifying work schedules, hours, or communication methods.
- Acquiring or modifying equipment or assistive devices.
- Providing qualified readers or interpreters.
- Modifying training, policies, procedures, or other programs.
- Remote work
- Redesign of work space.
A reasonable accommodation effectively removes barriers for the employee and allows them to perform their essential functions. While we try to take the employee's preferences into consideration, we may explore different but equally effective options.
Reasonable accommodations do not require employers to:
- Remove essential job functions.
- Create a new position or displace a fellow employee.
- Reassign employees to a new supervisor.
- Purchase equipment or devices that are primarily for personal use and needed both on and off the job (e.g. glasses, mobility aids, etc.).
- Provide indefinite leave of absence.
- Provide a personal care assistant.
An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it is not effective or reasonable under the circumstances; would create an undue hardship to the University; or would pose a direct threat to the employee or others.
Employees are not required to accept proposed accommodations; however, they may not be qualified to remain in their position if they refuse accommodations that would meet their requested needs.
Recognizing a Request
Choosing to disclose a disability may not be an easy decision for an employee but when they face disability-related issues in the workplace or have an accommodation need, they are most likely to approach their supervisor first.
You may learn about an employee’s need for accommodations in a variety of ways. Sometimes employees will simply tell you they are struggling on the job because of a health condition and won't specifically mention a disability.
You must notify HRS any time you are directly informed or suspect an employee may be struggling due to a medical health condition or a possible disability. Additionally, you should inform the employee of available resources available to them, including their right to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
Remember, you play a key role in setting the tone to support employees in this process so it’s important to realize when an employee may need assistance. Recognizing a request for accommodation is the first step in the interactive process.
The interactive process is a good-faith conversation that takes place between the employee, supervisor, and HRS to determine what barriers the individual is experiencing, clarify what the employee needs, and identify what reasonable accommodations would allow the employee to effectively perform their essential job duties.
Once the need for an accommodation has been recognized and HRS has been notified, the interactive process continues as follows:
- Employee provides information to HRS regarding the limitation and the work-related problem that the limitation is causing.
- HRS will request medical documentation sufficient to support the request if the employee’s disability or need for accommodation is not obvious.
- Supervisor reviews job description for accuracy to determine the essential and marginal functions of the position, as well as the physical requirements.
- HRS and supervisor will assess whether the employee’s request can be reasonably accommodated while the interactive process is taking place or if the employee needs to take time off work until additional information is received.
- Employees are invited to propose accommodations that they believe will be helpful, along with recommendations from their healthcare provider.
- HRS will explore possible accommodations based on the employee’s needs, with consideration given to the employee’s preference.
- Supervisor may offer accommodation suggestions and discuss the potential effectiveness in removing workplace barriers for the employee.
Choosing the Accommodation
- Reasonable accommodations are selected according to anticipated effectiveness with some consideration given to cost versus benefit.
- A trial period may be considered if we are uncertain whether the accommodation will be effective.
- Ultimately, UNI is the final decision maker in determining the reasonable accommodation that will be provided.
- Costs associated with an approved workplace accommodation are currently the responsibility of the department or division.
- The approved workplace accommodation must be implemented as soon as possible after it is identified and agreed upon.
- Any equipment involved in the accommodation needs to be properly installed and the employee should be trained in its proper use.
- Schedule changes or policy modifications provided as accommodations should be relayed to back-up and/or next-level supervisors so they may effectively implement the accommodation in a supervisor’s absence.
- Accommodations involving outside services or facilities work needs to be monitored to make sure the service or work is provided promptly.
- Accommodations may be temporary or permanent but should be reviewed on an annual basis. The accommodation may be reassessed any time prior to the annual review at the request of the employee, supervisor, or HRS.
- Periodically check in with the employee to ensure the accommodation is still effective.
- If equipment is provided, make sure it is properly maintained.
- Maintain ongoing communication with the employee and encourage them to notify you and/or HRS of any issues with the accommodation.
Performance and Conduct Standards
The goal of a reasonable accommodation is to assist the employee in meeting basic job requirements; therefore, employers can apply the same performance and conduct standards to employees with disabilities that are required of all employees.
While lowering standards or expectations is not considered a reasonable accommodation, supervisors should take extra care to ensure expectations are clearly communicated and understood.
If an employee with a disability must perform certain job functions differently as a result of their reasonable accommodations, supervisors must evaluate their performance accordingly. Ideally, any and all concerns should be brought to the employee’s attention as soon as possible in order to give the employee an opportunity to correct their performance and/or their behavior.
At times, receiving a less than successful performance appraisal or any disciplinary action may alert an employee that their disability could be a contributing factor to those areas needing improvement.
When an employee does not give notice of the need for accommodation until after a performance or conduct problem has occurred, employers are not required to:
- Tolerate or excuse the poor performance or misconduct.
- Withhold disciplinary action (including termination) warranted by the poor performance or misconduct.
- Change a performance rating.
- Give an evaluation that does not reflect the employee’s actual performance.
Supervisors should be mindful to avoid focusing on an employee’s disability when addressing performance or conduct concerns. Comments regarding any approved accommodations or approved leaves of absence related to the employee’s health conditions or disabilities should not be made in any performance appraisals, coaching, or disciplinary notices.
A reasonable accommodation also may not be withdrawn as punishment for underperformance. Less than successful performance ratings do not necessarily mean an accommodation is not working; however, supervisors should contact HRS to discuss and determine whether an accommodation is still effective and/or whether it may need to be revisited. Above all, supervisors must never single out employees with disabilities and ensure all policies, procedures and expectations are applied consistently.
Questions regarding performance or conduct concerns may be directed to the Employee Relations Coordinator at email@example.com or 319-273-6219.
Dos and Don’ts
- Treat every employee with respect even if you don't fully understand the challenges they face.
- Encourage employees to communicate their individual needs but do not enter into discussions about the employee’s medical condition or diagnosis.
- Stay informed about available resources, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and share those resources with your staff.
- Keep HRS informed of any changes or updates on the employee’s work restrictions or accommodation needs.
- Keep an open mind and consider doing things differently - never say “I can’t afford it”.
- Avoid “100% healed” policies - employers cannot require a worker to be completely healed from their health condition before returning to work.
- Avoid no-fault leave policies - automatically terminating workers who have, for any reason, exceeded a pre-set amount of leave violates the ADA.
- Avoid making statements or giving the employee the impression that their accommodations negatively impact the business and/or their co-workers.
- Don’t broadly announce that no exceptions will be made to uniformly applied workplace procedures.
- Recognize an accommodation request - remember that employees do not have to use special words or phrases to trigger the interactive process.
- Move an accommodation request forward - always contact HRS when an employee tells you they are having trouble doing their job.
- Keep lines of communication open - listen to the employee but don’t go into details about their medical condition or diagnosis.
- Understand that a reasonable accommodation might look like “special treatment” to your staff because it may include modifying policies or procedures for a specific employee.
- Support the employee and let them know that their situation will be taken seriously and efforts will be made to enable them to keep being productive when working with the disability.
Medical information is confidential, must not be disclosed to anyone who does not have a need to know, and must be filed separately from personnel files. Unauthorized disclosure of medical information is a violation of the law, as is revealing any information that a reasonable accommodation was requested and/or approved for an employee.
When an accommodation involves an obvious modification or change in the workplace that may be perceived by other employees as “special treatment”, you may be asked questions that could violate confidentiality if you fail to respond appropriately.
Since you already keep many types of information confidential despite inquiries from your staff (i.e. personnel decisions), this situation should be treated in similar fashion. You could respond that you do not discuss one employee’s situation with another in order to protect the privacy of all employees.
Remember to treat people with dignity and respect when dealing with sensitive or difficult personal and/or medical situations.
Learning Opportunity: FMLA & ADA Supervisor Responsibilities
Workplace Accommodation Services
UNI Policy 13.15 Campus Accessibility & Accommodations of Disabilities
The ADA & Employee Performance & Conduct Standards
Pregnant Workers Fairness Act
Questions regarding workplace accommodationss may be directed to the Leave & Accommodations Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-273-6164.