This post is a summary of findings from a larger co-authored research project written by Lauren Lee and Jacqueline Parchois to satisfy the requirements of their Organizational Communication Master’s coursework at Texas State University.
Lauren Lee (MA, Texas State University, 2019) recently graduated from the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. She is a HASTAC fellow from 2017-2019. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org. HASTAC: https://www.hastac.org/u/laurenlee
Jacqueline Parchois (MA, Texas State University, 2019) recently graduated from the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Correspondence: email@example.com
Best Practices for Organizational Communication about Disability Accommodation at Work.
According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four US adults, or 61 million people, have a disability that greatly impacts their life (CDC, 2018). The CDC identifies mobility as the most common type of disability (i.e. serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs) that affects one in seven adults in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 19.1 percent of the United States population maintains full or part-time employment status whilst managing symptoms related to their disability status (BLS, 2019). Further, the BLS reports that among all age and educational-attainment groups in the country, joblessness rates are higher for persons with disabilities as compared to those living without disability. One essential way that employees with disability are able to perform their job duties is through the use of work accommodation policies. However, in order to receive workplace accommodation, an employee with a disability must communicate a formal request which is then either approved or denied by the organization.
Because disabled employees must communicate with their supervisors to receive organizational accommodation, disability status is inherently created and understood via communication. From a communicative perspective, this is significant because how an organization conveys structural messages about disability (i.e., formal and informal policy) and the availability of accommodation resources, in turn, impacts an employees’ ability to discuss their experiences of disability with other organizational members (Kirby & Krone, 2002). Therefore, the goal of this blog post is to explore the ambiguous communication-based issues that employees with disability experience when requesting workplace accommodations in organizational settings. The aim of this post is to assist Supervisors in understanding the unique challenges that employees with disability face as well as illuminating organizational obstacles involved in providing reasonable workplace accommodations.
First, it is important to recognize that federal law such as the Americans with Disability Act (ADA; ADA, 2009) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA; FMLA, 2012) function as legislative touchstones that protect persons with disability from patterns of societal and organizational discrimination (Cohen & Avanzino, 2010). Although these policies outline important legal pathways for organizations, organizational communication about policies of this sort tends to be very ambiguous in nature (Carmon, 2013). From the communicative, organizational, and human resource perspectives, health conditions falling under the general category of disability may be difficult to accommodate due to the inconsistency of various health disorders (e.g., severity, illness pattern, progressiveness, symptom flares, periods of remission, symptom variability, symptom intrusiveness; see Beatty & Joffe, 2006). Additionally, the ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are protected under its legislation (ADA, 2009). Similarly, strategic use of unclear language defines the extent to which organizations must provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disability while simultaneously protecting the organization from enduring “undue hardship” as a result of job-related modifications. Thus, these factors can create problematic barriers to accommodation access for employees with disability in the workplace.
At this point, you may be asking yourself why these federal policies favor the use of ambiguous language instead of outlining concrete and clear policies for organizations to follow? One reason for the use of ambiguous language in policy results from differing conceptual definitions and explanations of disabilities that become complicated when attempting to encompass the many characteristics and symptoms that differ between various disability experiences. Thus, disability is hard to define furthering the ambiguous nature of communication around disabilities.
Communication theories exploring strategic ambiguity (Eisenberg, 1984) suggest that this communicative pattern is a tool that allows organizations to create messages that unify and encapsulate multiple experiential and organizational viewpoints (Eisenberg, 1984). Strategic ambiguity is a pervasive communication strategy that allows organizations to create policy that is both large enough to be effective in a variety of situations and non-specific as to allow the organization to make policy decisions on a somewhat case-by-case basis. In other words, the use of strategic ambiguity may allow an organization to communicate unclearly while still accomplishing its goals. For example, the ADA’s broad use of “reasonable accommodation” may allow organizations to determine that one accommodation method is acceptable while facilitating another may be seen as an unreasonable cost to the organization. In this sense, the ADA creates a strategically ambiguous framework for organizations to selectively accept or deny a person with disability’s request for workplace accommodation.
In summary, organizations make sense of, and respond to, disability based on the recommendations of federal legal policies such as the ADA. Organizational policy is often guided by the ADA’s definition for a person with disability as “[having] a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment” (ADA, 2009). Further, as disability is a communicative phenomenon, organizations grapple with adopting policies and procedures that unambiguously address how to manage individuals with disabilities and their requests for reasonable workplace accommodations.
To explore this issue in detail, Target Inc. becomes an illustrative example of how one national chain retail corporation manages organizational issues of disability. Target’s recent experience in managing a disabled employee’s continuous reasonable accommodation demonstrates how issues of ambiguous policy and organizational structure create workplace barriers that disproportionately affect a comorbidly ill (i.e., experiencing two or more illnesses) employee’s ability to flourish in the workplace. In 2002, Jeremy Schott, was hired on as a part-time stocker team-member at Target. Schott, an employee with disability who experienced confounding syndromes (i.e., cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, limited intellectual functioning; Stych, 2011) was able to complete his work assignments with the aid of a job coach who helped remind him of work-related responsibilities and assisted him during routine organizational meetings. With the provision of organizational accommodation, Schott was promoted to the role of cart attendant and named “Target Hero of the Month” (CBS, 2011). Despite Schott’s initial success within the organization, Target failed to ensure that his accommodation needs were being met subsequent to his role promotion. In addition to Target’s inability to provide Schott with a job coach, Target significantly reduced Schott’s work hours following his return from a medical leave of absence due to his seizure disorder (CBS, 2011). Following these events, Schott filed suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that Target failed to continuously comply with his request for previously provided reasonable workplace accommodations.
Target’s lack of consistency with granting reasonable accommodations within Schott’s case is indicative of larger structural problems organizations face when navigating issues of disability access and accommodations. Ultimately, Schott won his EEOC lawsuit against Target. Marla Stern, local EEOC director responsible for handling Schott’s complaint against Target stated:
Unfortunately, most employers are still unfamiliar with how easy it is to work with individuals with disabilities. The first step is honest and respectful communication between managers and employees on how to best assist workers with disabilities in reaching their full potential, and the cost of reasonable accommodation is often minimal. (EEOC, 2011).
As Stern notes, the bridge between employee experiences with disability and management's processing of disability begins with open and honest communication. As (dis)ability status is constituted through communication, improving an organization’s communication pathways regarding requests for reasonable accommodation and policies on accessibility can better the organization’s retention of employees with and without disability as well as foster organizational resilience.
Thus, demonstrating that organizational policy and larger federal policy (e.g., ADA) is under-considered in terms of communicative impacts and issues of strategic ambiguity; creating disparities for disabled employees and harming organizations in terms of productivity loss. In Target’s case, the lack of clear policy in the employee handbook or any corporate communication about how employees should address (dis)ability status in the organization only adds to the ambiguous nature surrounding disability access.
Considering Schott’s experiences with Target, Inc., it is evident that organizational communication practices impact the experiences and accommodation seeking of employees with disability in the workplace (Kirby & Krone, 2002). In the future, it is important that individuals in leadership positions such as managers, supervisors, HR professionals utilize communicative practices that benefit employees with disabilities. In doing so, organizations may maximize the underrepresented and under-utilized potential of this population in the workforce. What follows is a list of practical recommendations that can be utilized by supervisors to communicate about accommodation practices with employees with disability. These recommendations seek to employ communication in meaningful ways that improves lived-experiences and understanding of organizational accommodation processes for employees with disability.
The following conclusions are based on a review of more than fifteen communication-based studies. These recommendations aim to provide evidence-based practices so that organizational leaders more effectively communicate about and implement workplace accommodation policies. For further reading, check out the references below that were used to build our recommendations:
- Managers can support employees with disabilities by:
- Adhering to the employee with disability’s information boundaries (i.e., allowing employees to voluntarily offer private health-related information, and protecting the privacy of that information).
- Acknowledging the employee with disability’s privacy and/or protection rules.
- Providing social support resources.
- Becoming aware that stigma is a concern for employees with disability.
- Advocating for the employee with disability to upper management and peers.
- Providing advice about how to best manage health information in the workplace.
- Organizations should create clear policies to reduce the uncertainty for employees with disabilities by using policies such as the ADA to guide the formulation of more effective and distinct practices for:
- how to request workplace accommodation,
- what the process of accommodation requests entail, and
- how accommodations are implemented in the specific organizational context.
- Organizations should transparently enforce the enactment of these policies by fostering a supportive organizational climate, engaging in open communication, and creating an ongoing dialogue with those requiring accommodation.
- Organizations should become more proactive with their positive messaging to work towards building a climate of acceptance to reduce potential discrimination against employees who request an accommodation.
- Organizations should promote visibly and explicitly communicated support for workplace accommodation policies. In order for these policies to be effective, organizations should:
- Educate organizational leaders about accommodation practices as supervisors ultimately control resources that allow for accommodation.
- Encourage managerial employees to frequently use positive messaging to discuss available workplace accommodations resources that may be utilized by subordinate organizational-members.
- Organizational leaders should strive to develop strong superior-subordinate relationships with employees with disabilities as these individuals often face interpersonal challenges, which contribute to their out-group status within organizational structures.
Americans with Disabilities Act. United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disabilities Rights Section. (2009). A Guide to Disability Rights Laws. Washington DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm
Beatty, J. E., & Joffem R. (2006). An overlooked dimension of diversity: The career effects of chronic illness. Organizational Dynamics, 35, 182-195. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2006.03.006
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2019, Feb. 26). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics — 2018 [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf
Carmon, A. (2013). Is It Necessary to be Clear? An Examination of Strategic Ambiguity in Family Business Mission Statements. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 14, 87–96. https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.1080/17459435.2013.835346
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, Aug. 16). CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability. [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html
Cohen, M., & Avanzino, S. (2010). We are people first: Framing organizational assimilation experiences of the physically disabled using co-cultural theory. Communication Studies, 61, 272–303. https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.1080/10510971003791203
Eisenberg, E. M. (1984) Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227-242. DOI: 10.1080/03637758409390197
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2011, July 5). Target to Pay $160,000 to Settle EEOC Disability Discrimination Suit [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/7-5-11a.cfm
Family and Medical Leave Act. U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28.pdf
Kirby, E., & Krone, K. (2002). The policy exists but you can’t really use it: Communication and the structuration of work-family practices. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 50-77, doi: 10.1080/00909880216577
Stych, E. (2011, July 6). Target settles discrimination lawsuit for $160K. Retrieved from https://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/news/2011/07/06/target-settles-disability-lawsuit.html
Target Settles Disability Discrimination Lawsuit For $160K. (2011, July 05). Retrieved from https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2011/07/05/target-settles-disability-discrimination-lawsuit-for-160k/