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Accommodations for Difficulties with Assisting Others on the Telephone Due to Stress, Anxiety, and Interpersonal Communications

Addressing employee requests to have phone-related job tasks removed

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


What does an employer do when an employee, either a newly hired or even a longer-term one, requests to be taken off the job tasks that include talking on the telephone, especially when a large portion of the employee’s job consists of doing just that? Many employers face this dilemma, and it is often supported by an employee’s medical professional in the form of written medical documentation.

Because an employer is not required to remove essential functions from a position, they can require an employee to answer the telephone to help callers if that is an essential function of the job. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance states that there are several modifications or adjustments that are not considered forms of reasonable accommodation, including eliminating an essential function, i.e., a fundamental duty of the position. This is because a person with a disability who is unable to perform the essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation, is not a "qualified" individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Nor is an employer required to lower production standards -- whether qualitative or quantitative -- that are applied uniformly to employees with and without disabilities. However, an employer may have to provide reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with a disability to meet the production standard. While an employer is not required to eliminate an essential function or lower a production standard, it may do so if it wishes. Some employers will remove or reduce essential functions on a temporary basis while working to determine and implement accommodations.

Consultants at JAN help employers explore accommodations that might enable employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs such as assisting callers on the phone. As a starting point, we recommend finding out specifically what issues the employee is facing that make the phone calls troublesome. We find that stress and anxiety are often the culprit. Stress / anxiety in general would be difficult to accommodate in an area such as this, so finding the more specific reasons for the stress / anxiety and how phone calls cause or exacerbate it would be recommended as part of the interactive process. Only then can the employer and employee work together to reduce or eliminate the stress that makes the job functions difficult. The same would apply if the issues that make the phone calls difficult were more related to concentration, organization, memory deficits, and/or difficulties with social interactions.

During the interactive process, the employer can turn the conversation back to the employee and ask her what she will need in order to do the job effectively. Again, we would advise trying to find out what is most difficult for her as she takes the phone calls to see what accommodations can be provided to assist her. If more medical documentation is needed to clarify the request, employers can ask for additional information that would include details about the limitations that cause the difficulties, such as stress, concentration and focus, trouble remembering, or difficulties with social skills. Keep in mind that it is the employer’s role to determine the accommodations that will help the employee effectively perform the job functions. The doctor’s role is to provide information about how the limitations associated with the disability affect the employee’s ability to do the job tasks.

Some questions we would present to the employer to help explore accommodations include:

  • Does the employee need more training?
  • Do her conflict management skills need to be better developed?
  • Does the information she uses need to be more readily available to her, such as in a color-coded binder? Does the information need to be better organized for her way of thinking?
  • Would assigning a mentor to help guide and direct the employee help? Or maybe shadowing a competent coworker?
  • Would written or recorded instructions help? Maybe a checklist?
  • Are there any marginal functions that can be excluded while the employee is getting up to speed on the essential ones?
  • Are there distractions in the workplace that can be reduced or eliminated?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Jack, an employee who worked for an online catalog retailer, was having difficulty with serving customers over the phone and asked for a reassignment to a position where he did not have to talk to people but could do online chats and emails.

Since there were no positions open that Jack was qualified for or that didn’t involve talking to customers, his employer asked him what he would need to be able to complete the tasks in his current role. Jack said that because he had some short-term memory deficits, he didn’t feel prepared to answer callers’ questions on the fly. The employer offered to start out with some advanced one-on-one training and to provide a mentor to help him organize some extra resources that would be easy to locate and quick to read.

 

Lee was a help desk employee whose main job functions were troubleshooting the problems of other staff members. He was highly competent in solving problems but became impatient, rude, and disrespectful to coworkers who contacted him for assistance. Phone calls and in-person inquiries were becoming nearly impossible for him to handle. Lee asked for help when he was pulled into a disciplinary meeting with his supervisor.

A new policy was instituted for Lee that allowed him to take requests for help by e-mail instead of in person or by phone, reducing the stress caused by personal interactions with his coworkers. This enabled him to keep his emotions and behavior in check. The bonus? Now the employer had a written record of the inquiries, the solutions, and the time frames for fixing the problems.


A local government required that all employees in a certain department work a rotating schedule of tasks that included a daily portion of time spent answering the phones. Kaitlyn asked to be excused from the phone assignment because of difficulty interacting with strangers.

The employer denied Kaitlyn’s request not to answer phones because the ability to rotate through all tasks was an essential function of the job in that department. But the accommodation process didn’t stop there. The employer asked Kaitlyn about alternate accommodations and what they could do to help make her more comfortable in answering the phones. And in the meantime, they offered to put her in the timeslots when they had fewer calls.


A federal agency’s new customer service representative disclosed his autism to his supervisor and stated that he was unable to provide the required service to customers in his position as he found it too difficult to speak with callers and provide them with the requested information. The employee asked for a reassignment.

The employer asked for medical documentation including ideas that would help the employee be more competent and confident in performing the essential functions of assisting customers on the phone. A reassignment was denied because the new employee had not adequately performed the essential functions of the position, with or without reasonable accommodation.

 

Even employees with the same impairments experience them differently, so employers should be sure to take the time to have a full conversation with each employee about their limitations and the specific difficulties they present on the job. And of course, employers should always feel free to consult with JAN for the specific accommodation needs of particular employees.

 

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