Four tips to help start the employee accommodation conversation

HR discussing an employee accommodation

Compliance regulations have been developed to keep employees safe and their information private. However, these important regulations can have an unfortunate side effect for HR and managers — fear. This fear often leads employers to think they aren’t supposed to know the details about an employee’s condition, or that knowing certain things will cause them to be noncompliant.

However, asking questions is a vital first step for helping an employee with a medical condition at work. But how do you start that conversation? Here are four tips for initiating a discussion and helping an employee find a solution:

1. Be proactive and empathetic. It can be very difficult to identify what issue is affecting an employee. Moreover, an employee may show physical signs for a condition that isn’t actually physical in nature, such as depression or anxiety. The best approach here is a compassionate and preemptive one. Low productivity or reported changes in behavior are triggers for a simple, friendly conversation that may yield exactly the answers you’re looking for and, ultimately, allow you to help identify a solution for this employee.

2. Avoid asking the wrong questions. While straightforwardness may seem like the right route, hard-hitting and direct questions are typically not permitted under the ADAAA. Here’s a short list of questions that the EEOC recommends you shouldn’t ask:1

  • Have you ever had a disability?
  • How did you become ill or injured?
  • Do you have any sort of medical documentation to prove it?
  • Have you ever had genetic testing done?
  • Are you taking any prescription drugs or medications? Have you in the past?

3. Don’t just rephrase or broaden a question. You can’t ask a general question about the employee’s impairments that’ll cause them to give you information about their condition or medical history. An example of that would be, “What impairments do you have?”

4. Ask the right questions. When your questions aren’t likely to elicit information about a medical condition, they’re typically permitted. Focus more on the employee’s general well-being through a question such as, “How are you?” Other examples, including asking a tired employee if they feel OK, or inquiring if a sneezing employee has allergies or a cold. You can even ask how an employee is doing following the death of a loved one or a divorce. Again, it goes back to tip No. 1 – be empathetic. Here are a few more questions you can ask:

  • What’s getting in the way of your productivity?
  • Are you able to do your job? Can you do the work?

In addition to these questions about the ability to perform their job duties, the EEOC provides a few additional examples of specific and direct questions that can be asked here.

Asking an employee about why their productivity is down and then providing them with an accommodation for their needs does not mean you’re giving that person an excuse not to do their job. Instead, the goal is to help the employee get back to their normal level of productivity.

And what’s one great way to reach that goal? Start by asking, “How are you?”


1 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Enforcement Guidance: Disability-related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/guidance-inquiries.html. Updated March 24, 2005.

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