Under federal law, employers are generally required to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities or religious requirements. But what should my company do when an employee asks for one?
Ideally, you have a process in place for identifying accommodation requests and responding to them. This process should encourage discussion with the employee about what is actually needed. This is because, while you are generally required to provide a reasonable accommodation, you are not necessarily required to provide the exact accommodation the employee asks for. You just need to find something that will meet their needs.
When can we say no to an accommodation?
Even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) require reasonable accommodations, they don’t require:
- Accommodations that would require significant difficulty or expense
- Changes to the fundamental job duties
- Lowering your production or performance standards
- Tolerating misconduct
In the case of a religious accommodation, you are generally not required to provide anything that would pose more than a minimal burden or cost. Common religious accommodations include changes in schedule to accommodate worship, allowing clothing with religious significance, giving an extra, unpaid break for daily prayer, or changing the person’s job location so they don’t work directly with the public.
Be aware that Title VII protects all workers with sincere religious, ethical or moral beliefs, not just members of traditional organized religions. This could include people with newer or less common moral belief systems as well as atheists and agnostics.
The ADA may require more than minimal difficulties or expense to accommodate disabilities. For example, a request for adaptive technology is generally considered reasonable. You might need to move the person’s assigned seat to one that is easier for wheelchairs to access. You could be required to allow handicap parking. What accommodation is considered reasonable is broader with disabilities.
In general, try not to say no to employee accommodation requests, but rather seek to accommodate the employee in a way that works for everyone. If this is not possible, suggest an alternative accommodation if the requested one would pose undue hardship to your company — and explain why you are unable to provide the one requested. The process of determining a reasonable accommodation for an employee is by nature a discussion between the employer and the employee.
Don’t assume you can’t afford to provide accommodations. Many are inexpensive or free, and you may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation funding or a Small Business Tax Credit, for example.
Review each accommodation request individually. If an accommodation is possible but there will be a delay, consider a temporary accommodation.
Keep in mind that a person’s need for accommodations may change as their job changes. Be receptive to new or additional requests over time.
If you are unsure about the right accommodation, you can ask for help. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network offers free, confidential assistance with job accommodation issues. You can also discuss your situation with your employment law attorney, who can give you an idea of your legal exposure if you have to decline an accommodation.