The world of absence management is continually evolving and changing, and this is one of the many reasons I love my work. One component of my role is assisting organizations in managing their disability and leave programs, which includes being compliant with the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADA has pained employers for years due to its regulatory complexity, and although they are making strides and building functional processes to address it, it can sometimes feel like two steps forward and one step back.
I recently conducted a training on the ADA for a large employer team of subject matter experts. After a challenging week of what felt like personal parental fails, I used an analogy that managing your ADA program is a lot like raising a pre-teen! Truth be told, that wasn’t in the script, but it was top of mind at the time and I knew that most of the audience could relate to both parental and ADA struggles.
If you still aren’t convinced of the overlap, I have outlined four challenges with the ADA (that I also experienced with my 12-year-old daughter).
Everything must be managed on a case-by-case basis
Organizations must have a prescribed process to identify and manage ADA cases to ensure potential accommodations do not slip through the cracks. However, the regulation is clear in that every case must be reviewed based on its own merit. Employers must consider every request, examine what is needed, and consider solutions that will satisfy the employee’s needs without causing undue hardship to the organization. Key elements of any job must be considered, such as location, essential functions, organizational structure, hardship potential, duration and the like. A simple yes or no is rarely enough. There are often conditions that must be met, including the potential for extensive negotiation, and any decision may be accomp
anied by resistance from different parties.
At home I also take into consideration things like location, duration, hardship to the family unit and every request must be reviewed on its own merits. Just like with your ADA requests, a yes is always met with delight, but a no will always cause additional work and difficult discussions. That said, that doesn’t mean that you can routinely go the “yes” route just because it’s the path of least resistance.
There is a constant demand for “things”
Regardless of whether the request is for Instagram or a sit-stand desk, the requests just keep rolling in! Giving a simple “no” just isn’t going to work. You must engage with your employee (or child) by asking questions, digging into the details, justifying your rationale and following documented policies and regulations (or family rules). Why do they need what they are asking for? Examine both sides of the argument.
With accommodation requests, a simple “yes” is rarely the optimal solution. The key is to really understand what is needed versus what is requested, as there are often gaps in between. The dialogue and documentation need to support what the employee can do and what will ensure they are able to do the essential functions of their job with or without accommodations. Simply approving their request for something may not actually yield a successful solution. Instead as the employer you need to find an accommodation that suits not only the employee but as many stakeholders as appropriate. I recently worked with a client surrounding parking accommodations which were on the rise and extremely challenging given their various office locations and distances to sites. It highlighted how a simple “yes” doesn’t always work. Instead great care needs to be taken with each request and each potential accommodation.
With my daughter it started with an iPod and grew to the iPhone, which has now turned into social media requests. Just saying yes doesn’t work for me – I need to dig in and see what I can provide her that might satisfy her need to fit in without creating an undue hardship for me. And if I do say yes, you can bet there is going to be a social meeting
agreement (similar to an accommodation agreement) to hold us both accountable! .
Your voice is drowned out by others
Employees requesting an accommodation typically have resources to work with at an organization. They may be working with a disability or workers’ compensation partner, their supervisor, HR, benefits and even occupational health resources. All those voices become noise in the ADA process. Even with the best of intentions, those s
ources put pressure on the situation that may drown out the voice of the accommodation team. Some parties may be encouraging return to work too aggressively or not aggressively enough. Silence from those resources may be perceived as lack of support the same way that vocalization may be viewed as intimidating. How do you find the right balance?
The key is to manage expectations within the ADA process and bring the stakeholders together by giving them a seat at the table. The interactive pr
ocess is a very critical part of accommodation reviews; it cannot be avoided in a compliant process. Instead of dreading that part of the process, try to embrace it. Use it to get to the best solution for the employee and the stakeholders and then make a firm decision on what can be implemented.
All parents understand that our children aren’t always listening to us even though we may think every word we utter is critical and wisdom-filled (just like a strong HR professional). Further, what they hear from us may differ from what they hear from their friends, friends’ parents, teachers, or even your spouse. But regardless of the frustration or eye rolls, the ultimate decision related to our children rests with us. They may try to change our minds or tell us all the reasons why other opinions should be valued, but we determine the best solution and do our best to implement it at home.
The goal post is hard to see, but it’s there in the distance
An organization cannot be compliant with the ADA, or appropriately manage absence, unless they are dedicated to developing an accommodation program and following through with clear processes and documentation. With that said, it is a long game – a marathon, not a sprint. Most employees and supervisors will not be singing your praises immediately. At first, they will feel like you are making it “too easy” for employees, or “rewarding” employees who are abusing the system. At the same time employees may think you are “asking too many questions” or “forcing them to pay more money to get paperwork completed.” On any given day all those things may be true, but you are also working to provide a compliant work environment that accommodates employees fairly. You want a solution that returns employees to productive work, processes that are in good faith and interactive and a way that documents what steps were taken and what was agreed to. All of those are beneficial to your organization and to the individual as well.
I was recently working with a client that learned the hard way about documentation. They had a healthcare resource that was given an accommodation around not performing CPR as it was not viewed as an essential function. This employee was transitioned to a new role where CPR was required but the knowledge of her accommodation and lack of ability to perform this function was missed during transition. Unfortunately, this placed an unanticipated strain on the organization, which could have been avoided with greater documentation. Instead, the involved parties were working to solve the immediate need without thinking about the long-term impact on the employee or the organization.
As you focus on return to work and accommodations, try to aim for incremental change toward the most successful program possible, keeping the long-term vision in your view. Start with your policies and procedures, ensuring they reflect the type of program your organization needs. Consider them as living documents that will require revisions as your accommodation program matures. Build an efficient process around those policies, doing your best to move toward that pre-defined, distant goal post.
At home, incremental change is necessary as well. Do I want a clean room, laundry done, dishes finished and homework perfect? Yes. But I will settle for incremental change toward a successful and productive member of society. This may mean taking things one step (or chore) at a time or placing more focus on the achievements compared to the gaps.
So next time my daughter tells me I am “annoying” and “all the other kids have Instagram” and “I don’t know what it’s like,” I will remind myself that on any given day those things may be true, but I’m trying to raise a healthy, happy kid and building this foundation is necessary to create long-term success. Right now, it’s hard for me to see the goal post but I know it’s there.
Regulation around the ADA is complex, like my pre-teen, but it’s important to remember that it is built on the core premise of avoiding discrimination and pushing employers to do what is right. It sometimes forces a difficult dialogue between employers and employees, but the goal is optimal for both parties.