The Interactive Process: AKA the Importance of Talk

What if you are a manager and you hear one of your employees say he is having trouble getting to work on time every day because of some medical appointments?  Dare you ignore the remark?  Is it a trigger to start an intentional conversation with that employee?  If so, how hard could that really be?  Turns out, it can be painstaking, and it can be critically important.


This employee may have just begun the critical conversation (aka the interactive process) required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).  The requirement for an interactive process is unique to the ADA.  The process can be difficult to start, to do well and to maintain.  Both the individual with a disability and the employer are required to communicate in good faith regarding reasonable accommodations, once conversation has determined that there may be performance issues related to a disability.


In your conversation provide the employee an opportunity to explain the reason that an accommodation is required due to a medical condition.  From that point, explore every potential accommodation that is suggested.  Remember that under the guidelines, an employee does not get to demand one, one particular or even “the best” solution.  Neither is it good practice for a manager to enter the conversation with preconceived notions about the employee, the medical condition, limitations or potential accommodations.  Books have been written and court cases decided when either party tries to draw a proverbial line in the sand.  It may be useful to invite the employee to complete an initial questionnaire to help him prepare for a conversation with you: to collect his thoughts and generate some creative options.


Examples of reasonable accommodations range widely and may include equipment, leaves of absence, changes in work schedule, job reassignment to an available and suitable job, restructuring of nonessential job functions, modified workplace policies, etc.  Often, the best accommodation involves a little creativity from both parties and need not be costly.  In one situation, a yoga mat and time to stretch throughout the day was all an employee needed to address a chronic back pain issue.


The interactive process does not end with the first conversation.  Periodic follow up with the employee is good practice to maintain productivity and engagement and to ensure that any accommodation is effective.


Internal resources include knowledge of requirements of the ADA, the business and the employee’s role in it and good job descriptions.


Outside resources such as the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the U.S. EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (October 27, 2002) may also be useful.

  • Be aware of the ADA and its requirements.
  • Maintain job descriptions that focus on essential functions.
  • Train managers to have effective conversations: to ask questions about reasonable accommodations and not about the medical condition or disability.
  • Meet and converse periodically with the individual and document the conversations.
  • Repeat as necessary to assure any accommodation continues to be effective and reasonable.