by Frank J. Godfrey III
An attorney I’ve worked with for almost 20 years is fond of the old saw “communication is the key.” He will say it when working through a legal problem. He will say it when working through a staffing assignment matter. He will say it when we are on the golf course. I’ve also heard him say it when we are out dining and his waiter brings the wrong entrée. And interestingly enough, in most circumstances, he is correct: clear communication helps avoid misunderstandings big and small.
I’ve thought about this pearl of wisdom often. In fact, it occurred to me that a client’s recent workplace dispute would not have escalated had his manager and employee clearly communicated to each other about a simple request for additional rest breaks. The employee was coping with a medical condition that required additional breaks in order to consume food and regulate blood sugar level. The employee was a productive member of her team. Unfortunately, the employee was embarrassed about her medical condition and did not fully explain the need for additional breaks to her manager. Her manager did not ask additional questions that could have led him to conclude her request for additional breaks was reasonable under the circumstances.
This simple lack of clear communication between employer and employee could have resulted in the loss of a productive employee and a complex lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”). The lawsuit could have exposed the employer to significant monetary liability and a loss of productivity as certain employees would be swept into the currents of litigation preparation and defense.
Fortunately for all concerned, this story had a happy ending. The employee’s workplace friend quietly informed her manager that the employee was coping with a medical condition. The manager was able to then specifically address the employee’s request for additional breaks, keep a productive employee on the job, send a positive message to other employees that the employer cared for his employees and limit the employer’s exposure to liability.
It is obvious that communication was the key to working through and accommodating this employee’s reasonable request. And that is the intent of the ADA’s interactive process, which requires good faith discussions between employer and employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is necessary and possible.
Employers faced with this type of employee accommodation request— or any other employment-related issues— should keep this chesnut in mind. As the above example demonstrates, this not only helps employers comply with various employment related laws, it also reflects good business judgment and practice.
It is not always possible for employers to cope with employee disputes without advice of legal counsel. However, in our experience, disputes that require assistance of legal counsel are more efficiently resolved when there is a record of good communication between the employer and employee.