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Communication Difficulties in the Workplace

Accommodating Employees with Communication Difficulties

From the desk of James Potts, M.S., Senior Consultant - Cognitive/Neurological Team

JAN regularly fields questions about accommodating employees with disabilities that create communication difficulties, such as the inability to communicate effectively and appropriately with others. The following are examples of the type of issues we hear about and potential avenues to work through them.

Communicating with Authority

Example: A high-level manager has trouble effectively communicating with his boss – the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at the company. The manager can perform the essential functions of his job at a high level, but the frequent requirement to be on the phone or video conferencing with his boss negatively impacts his anxiety and makes it more difficult to keep up with his actual work tasks. Everyone is working from home so he cannot communicate in person, and the CEO’s management style while teleworking impacts his anxiety.

Discussion: All employees need to keep in mind that it is a boss’ job to assign work, critique work when necessary, and keep the business running to the employer’s standard. However, when a boss’ management style triggers an employee’s disability-related symptoms, accommodations may need to be considered. Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that changing a supervisor is usually not considered a reasonable accommodation, but changing management style could be reasonable. So, the first step for employees is to think about why they are having difficulty with their supervisor or manager. In the scenario above, if the current method of communication with the supervisor is negatively impacting the employee’s medical condition, asking to communicate in alternative ways may be an appropriate accommodation request. For example, the employee could ask to limit phone or video conferencing and instead communicate via email as much as possible and to schedule a window of time (daily, weekly, etc.) to discuss expectations and plan accordingly. If the employee feels that he is being mistreated, he may want to discuss the situation with Human Resources and ask for assistance to work through the issues.

Communicating with Customers

Example: An employee with bipolar disorder works as a customer service representative at a call center and has trouble communicating appropriately when customers are demanding. The representative is very knowledgeable about the products her company sells, but she has been getting customer complaints about her tone and professionalism.

Discussion: An employee working in a customer-oriented job must be able to provide satisfactory customer service. In the example above, the employee may want to ask for training about how to manage difficult customers or practice appropriate hand-off strategies with a manager if one is available. A potential accommodation might be to allow the employee to take allotted breaks as needed to practice stress management techniques after difficult interactions. If there are no effective accommodations in the current role, then a schedule change where fewer customer interactions occur naturally or reassignment to a different position that does not interact with customers could be explored.

Communicating with Coworkers

Example: An employee had difficulty communicating with coworkers while adjusting to new medications for her medical condition. The employee explained that she was having trouble managing her emotions and wanted to be excused from directly interacting with colleagues for the next four weeks.

Discussion: Employers may be more flexible and creative with expectations of how coworkers communicate in the workplace. In the example above, depending on the job it might be possible to remove or significantly reduce the amount of in-person communication with coworkers and do most communication in writing. Communicating in writing gives each party time to think about what needs to be said and to edit the communication. In some situations, it might be appropriate for an employee to ask to have a third-party present for certain interactions that must be completed in person. If there is inappropriate conduct between the parties, the employer may need to address it as a conduct issue rather than an accommodation.


Practically speaking, when dealing with communication difficulties, it can be helpful for all involved to have an open discussion about what the communication difficulties are and options for improving them. The content (i.e., assigning work, collaboration, customer service) of the others’ communication is not likely to change, but if the employee with a disability has specific ideas on better ways to communicate and get the message across, this would be the time to offer those solutions. The employer needs to determine if anyone involved is breaking any conduct policies and correct as appropriate. Additionally, there may just be personality conflicts at play that can be worked through with flexibility and compassion. The purpose of communication is to transfer information between parties, a goal that can be achieved in multiple ways in our current technological world.

Employees communicating