By Dan Gephart, August 16, 2022

If you’re a Federal supervisor and you see your name in the Washington Post, chances are it’s not going to be a positive experience. And that was certainly the case for the high-ranking senior government official whose demeanor and leadership were questioned by anonymous staff members in a story last month.

That this personnel investigation was dragged onto a public website that generates 70 million unique views each month doesn’t look good for anyone involved. I will not weigh in on any of the specific details of this story, nor make any judgments. But I will share three important lessons we can take away from the article.

1. A disability may appear to be something else. Before you rush to judgment on an employee’s behavior, be aware that some disabilities exhibit themselves in ways you wouldn’t expect.

More than 37 million Americans, a whopping 11.9 percent of the population, had some form of diabetes in 2019, according to the American Diabetes Association. That’s a lot of people. When blood glucose levels become too high or too low, a diabetic individual’s mental status can become impaired. It could lead to slurred speech and moodiness that mimic intoxicated behavior. It may seem obvious to you that an employee is drunk, but that may not be the case.

When an employee shows up to work looking disheveled, acting irritably, and appearing sleep-deprived, you may think she was out on a bender. She could have anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or may be undergoing a mental health crisis.

Are you supposed to somehow figure this out on the fly? No. Are you supposed to ask the employee if he has a disability? Heck no! The law prohibits your agency from asking questions likely to elicit information about a disability at this stage. General questions such as, “Are you feeling okay?” are usually appropriate, as is telling the employee: “Hey, did you know we have a Reasonable Accommodation Coordinator?  I’ll email you her contact information just in case you’d like to talk to her.”

If the employee is indeed drunk, remember that you can and should discipline the employee – even if the employee has a disability such as alcoholism.

2. You should hold all employees accountable, even if they may have a disability. Let’s say an employee arrives late for a couple of times in one week. Could a change in medication or a hidden disability be the cause? It’s possible. But that doesn’t mean you ignore what’s happening. Yes, you can point the employee to the RA Coordinator. Then document the incidents using your 75-cent tool (prices may change due to inflation). If the misconduct or poor performance continues, take the appropriate action

3. Reasonable accommodations are not a one-and-done thing. What if the employee had previously informed you of his disability and had already received an accommodation? And now, out of the blue, the performance or conduct worsens.

This is a good reminder that reasonable accommodations are not lifetime appointments. It’s good practice to reassess the accommodation if an employee appears unable to perform the essential functions of their job. Medications change (as do their side effects), and conditions improve, worsen, or simply change over time. Most reasonable accommodations are no- or low-tech. But if you’re providing a high-tech accommodation, you need to ensure it’s compliant with current and changing technology needs and be aware if there’s a new alternative product that would be effective.

The pandemic changed us all. If your employees are returning to the physical workplace after more than two-plus years, now may be the time to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their reasonable accommodations. It’s one of those rare things you can do that is a true win-win for everyone. [email protected]

[Editor’s note: Join Attorney Katherine Atkinson for the session Revisiting Existing Reasonable Accommodations, one of the 11 sessions that make up FELTG’s Annual Federal Workplace 2022: Accountability, Challenges & Trends August 29 – September 1.]

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