From the desk of Tracie DeFreitas, M.S., Principal Consultant — ADA Specialist
It’s not always easy getting along with others at work. Differences of opinion and communication styles can make for a challenging employment situation for some people, especially when those differences are with a supervisor. Oftentimes these differences can be accepted or worked-out, but when they can’t, workplace stress becomes elevated, making it difficult for some people to perform job functions effectively. In particular, people with such impairments as generalized anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may find it necessary to discuss job accommodations related to interacting with a supervisor when the relationship is less than cooperative.
This situation is not uncommon. In fact, one of the more frequent inquiries JAN Consultants receive from employers is whether they are required to change a person's supervisor as a form of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has responded to this very question in guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA. EEOC’s position is that, in most circumstances, an employer does not have to provide an employee with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation. Of course, this does not mean that an employer cannot change an employee’s supervisor if it is possible and makes sense in the given situation. While the EEOC states that an employer is not generally required to make such a change, other accommodations may be required, for example changes in supervisory methods that will have a positive impact on job performance.
Supervisors can implement management techniques that support an inclusive workplace culture. These same techniques can be ways of effectively accommodating employees who may have difficulty communicating with supervisors, or who need alternative methods of supervision. Successful management techniques include the following:
- Provide positive praise and reinforcement,
- Provide day-to-day guidance and feedback,
- Provide written job instructions via e-mail,
- Develop clear expectations of responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting performance standards,
- Schedule consistent meetings with employees to set goals and review progress,
- Allow for open and honest communication,
- Establish written long-term and short-term goals,
- Develop strategies to deal with conflict,
- Develop procedures to evaluate the effectiveness of accommodations,
- Educate all employees on their right to accommodations,
- Provide sensitivity training to co-workers and supervisors,
- Do not mandate that employees attend work related social functions, and
- Encourage all employees to move non-work related conversations out of work areas.
JAN also receives questions about reassigning an employee to a vacant position if changing supervisory methods is not effective. For example, an employee with an anxiety disorder had anxiety attacks that were triggered by any interaction with the current supervisor because of their past relationship. It was not hostile or harassing, just a bad relationship for the person's anxiety. The employer asked if reassignment must be considered as an accommodation in this type of situation. This is a challenging situation because how does the employer know that a similar situation will not develop between the employee and a different supervisor? The EEOC has expressed that, under most circumstances, the ADA would not require an employer to reassign an employee to a different position due to a poor relationship with a supervisor.
Let’s look at this situation from another perspective, where an employee maybe was only having problems with one supervisor, for example someone who has PTSD as a result of being assaulted and her current supervisor reminds her of the attacker. In this situation, it is not a relational or supervisory situation, but rather a PTSD trigger for the employee. EEOC has stated that this may be one of the limited situations in which an employer should consider reassignment when an employee cannot work with a specific supervisor. This is because a change in supervisory methods will not be effective in this situation and there may not be any other accommodation that would work other than reassigning the employee to a job with a different supervisor.
Essentially, under most circumstances, an employer does not have to provide an employee with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation, but may need to implement other types of accommodations, like changes in supervisory methods that will enable performance of job functions. Under limited circumstances where changing supervisory methods will not be effective because the supervisor is a trigger, regardless of supervisory methods, reassignment may be required. An accommodation must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual, while not causing undue hardship for the employer.
For further reference, see the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA, question 33.