Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment. As simple as that may seem, employers have their work cut out for them in meeting the law's standards. That's what makes consistency, communication and compliance so important, Jennifer Lyons, marketing manager at Guardian Life Insurance, said during a Disability Management Employer Coalition webinar.
"If one of these are missing, the employer is putting themselves at risk," she said. "The focus should be on policies and procedures that are consistent and clearly communicated."
Consistency in policies
When it comes to accommodation policies, the best are written long before a situation requires them, Cammie McAda, vocational rehabilitation services leader at Guardian, said. "A policy is a guideline that explains the expected behavior for the company and the employee," she said. "Don't write it when the situation arises — be one step ahead of the game. Anticipate that need." When employers hurry to write a policy after a situation has necessitated it, they often craft the rule around the situation unknowingly.
Policies should define the process through which an organization approaches accommodations, which means it sets necessary boundaries, lays out the forms used, defines deadlines and sets expectations for followup, McAda said. And to ensure the success of a policy, of course, consistency is absolutely necessary; "Consistency in our policy allows for uniformity across the organization," she said.
This uniformity is one created through a process of repetition, McAda said. When a process can repeat itself for the unique situations arising day by day, it's effective. "Inconsistency can lead to misinterpretation, uncertainty and, bottom line, to discrimination," she said. "We want to make sure that we make a process broad enough that gives everyone the opportunity to be treated equally and handle that process with a consistent format."
Clarity in communication
Even the most masterfully crafted policy will fail unless its paired with good communication. "Clear and concise communication is key to the best outcomes," McAda said. "Concise doesn't always mean brief, but clear and to the point." Employees who know what's going to happen next will respond well, she added.
The duty of communication belongs to the employer, according to Valerie Dorsey, professional resources team leader. "The employer is responsible for the communication," she said, adding that an employer can be broadly defined — "anyone in the position of authority." Once communication begins, employers must ensure all communication coincides with company policies. And though the employer-employee dialogue may be initiated verbally and without use of ADA-specific language, employers may want to carry out the rest of the communication in writing or take notes of in-person conversations for documentation purposes, Dorsey said.
Employers can consider the lifecycle of an accommodation to assess the clarity and consistency of communication, McAda said. Before an accommodation request surfaces, it's essential that a policy exists and that employees have access to that policy. Employers also may want to make this information available in posters, employee handbooks or notices.
Once an employee has requested an accommodation or made a need known, the interactive process begins. "This is where documentation becomes key," McAda said. "Make sure you don't rely on verbal communication. Document everything, even if you think it's simple. The interactive process doesn't have to be a two-hour formal meeting, but you want to make sure you cover yourself with documentation."
After an employer has put an accommodation into action, it will need to ensure its understanding of the solution matches the employee's understanding, McAda added. This is particularly important for employees taking leave as an accommodation — and they'll need return-to-work instructions, too. And, after the implementation of an accommodation, the employer must prioritize followup to make sure the accommodation works, she said.