“A situation or relationship involving mutual or reciprocal action or obligation.”
~ Oxford Dictionary
Most California employers are well-versed in the requirement to engage in an interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability. We also understand that our decision making should generally err on the side of the employee to minimize legal risk. However, all of this knowledge can sometimes create an overabundance of caution and “accommodations” in work schedule or performance without requiring the employee to do his/her part.
For example, an employee states that his supervisor’s strict expectations are causing debilitating stress… or a food service worker avoids eye contact with restaurant guests because she feels that looking downward keeps her anxiety levels low. These are real situations in which the employer wondered if there was a legal responsibility to accommodate the employee’s stated health condition. And the answer is… it depends.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides extensive guidance on how to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and both the employer and employee have their own roles to play. Employees and applicants have specific responsibility to cooperate in the interactive process, to provide information about the disability and limitations, and to provide requested medical certification of the need for accommodation.
This means that in order to approve a reduced work schedule, a leave of absence, or modified job duties, a manger can (and should) ask the employee to submit a doctor’s note indicating 1) which of the essential functions of the job he/she is unable to perform, 2) accommodations that will allow the employee to perform those functions, and 3) the expected duration of the accommodations. Both parties should be willing to talk about the doctor’s recommendations, the employee’s and employer’s preferences, and explore other possible measures that might provide equal employment opportunity. According to the EEOC, “failure on the part of the employee to cooperate in the interactive process may result in a denial of the reasonable accommodation request” and the employee can (and should) be held accountable for the same standards of attendance and performance as others.
YES, it is always important to be responsive to employees’ requests regarding health conditions and to inform them of their rights and responsibilities under federal and state law. YES, you should be cautious when navigating employee disability issues and consult an attorney when in doubt. And YES, it is okay to insist that your employee do his/her part in the interactive process, rather than feel compelled to approve one-way demands.