Avoiding Disability Discrimination Claims: Reasonable Accommodation & Interactive Process “How To”


By: Allyson K. Thompson

An employee comes to work with a cast on his leg. An employee comes to you and tells you that the light in his office gives him headaches. An employee states that the reason she is not as productive is because her left hand hurts when she types. An employee has exhausted his disability leave, but the employee indicates that further accommodation is needed.

These are examples of the type of observations or statements that can arise in the workplace that will trigger the need for a response from the employer. The “response” is called engaging in the interactive process to see if a reasonable accommodation needs to be made.

So, where does an employer start?

Keep in mind that once an employer becomes aware of an employee’s disability issue, the employer cannot bury its head in the sand and hope that it will resolve itself. Knowledge may arise when:

The supervisor or manager should consult with Human Resources, if applicable. HR should initiate the interactive process with the employee in a timely manner. If the employer does not have an HR department, the highest level supervisor should engage in the interactive process with the employee.

What does it mean to engage in the interactive process? The employer needs to confidentially consult with the employee to identify job-related limitations, if any. It is helpful to pull the job description for the position and run through each task or function to make sure there are no limitations. It is critical that this process is documented. Make sure to engage in this process behind closed doors so that the interview is kept confidential and does not invade the employee’s privacy rights.

An employer is allowed to ask the employee for reasonable medical documentation of functional limitations from the employee’s medical provider, unless limitations are obvious and already known. An employer should never contact the employee’s physician directly. Have the employee get the information. Should the employee give you permission to contact his physician directly, contact HR or legal counsel before doing so.

The information requested from a medical provider should not disclose the nature of the disability or information on the underlying cause. All the employer is allowed to obtain is documentation confirming the existence of the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation. It may include a description of the physical or mental limitations that affect a major life activity. Do not ask for an employee’s complete medical records.

If the information provided by the employee is unclear, an employer must identify what information needs clarification and give the employee a reasonable time to provide the additional information.

Next, HR should work with the employee’s manager or supervisor to analyze the particular job involved and identify the essential and non-essential functions of the job. From there, the employer and the employee need to identify and discuss possible reasonable accommodations, and discuss options. Remember to listen to the employee and consider the employee’s preferences. If the accommodation would pose an undue hardship, consult legal counsel before ruling out that an accommodation cannot be made. What is an “undue” hardship will turn on several factors, including the size of the company, the position, and the costs of accommodation. Ultimately, the accommodation should be effective in allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of his job.

Sometimes, reassignment to an alternate position is considered a reasonable accommodation. It is permissible to ask the employee to provide information about his educational qualifications and work experience to determine if there is a suitable alternative position for the employee. Reducing an employee’s pay should the reasonable accommodation involve moving the employee to an alternative position that pays less than the current position should be avoided at all costs.

Make sure that whomever handles the decision to implement the accommodation documents the accommodation provided. Have the employee sign an acknowledgment that the interactive process occurred and whether or not an accommodation was made.

Remember to check back in with the employee approximately 30 days after the accommodation is implemented to see how the accommodation is working for the employee. If necessary and reasonable, make adjustments.

Lastly, all the documentation pertaining to the interactive process, which may include the employee’s confidential medical information, must be contained in a confidential file, separate from the employee’s personnel file.

Allyson K. Thompson is an Associate with Kring & Chung, LLP’s Irvine, CA office. She can be contacted at (949) 261-7700 or athompson@kringandchung.com.