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My friend has a coworker with a minor disability. The coworker was hired by the company for "workplace diversity" rather than on merit. My friend is his team leader, and is responsible for managing his work on the project, but not his performance reviews or evaluations.

Note: Though he wasn't hired on merit from the greater pool of talent, this should not be an implication that he doesn't have the skills for the position

While the minor disability does not interfere with the sorts of tasks assigned, the coworker often fails to complete the tasks on time while giving excuses due to his disability.

"I had to go to a doctor's appointment"

Yet the doctor's appointment wasn't scheduled or informed ahead of time (these doctor appointments are told to my friend after the work day has already started).

"I wasn't able to do it due to my disability"

Yet the employee informed the company of tasks that he couldn't do due to the disability, and this sort of task was never mentioned, even after being assigned to the employee.

My friend feels incredibly uncomfortable confronting the employee. He does not want to marginalize the employee's disability or make it an aside, yet at the same time he is responsible for making sure that the employee contributes to the company and has to evaluate him.

When dealing with an employee with a disability, what is a professional way to confront the coworker about issues that may or may not be related to that disability?

Clarifications from various answers and comments: 1) My friend is his team leader, not responsible for performance reviews, but responsible for managing his workload and day to day tasks. 2) This is not the US -- legal issues are not a real issue because nobody gets fired, just transferred elsewhere. 3) the issue isn't how to cover his ass, but how to address this with the employee who is reporting to him and not getting things done on time -- personal experience communicating with people with disabilities who were underperforming on the job would be ideal

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@Joe, in the part of the world I'm in, these things are common knowledge. Governments dictate that certain companies need to hire X disadvantaged (read: diverse) employees –  jmac Dec 20 '13 at 17:17
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Actually the workplace diversity comment is needed for this question. The tone of the question is important, because the person asking the question has already decided that the disabled person cost a qualified employee a job, and that they are holding back the performance of the team. –  mhoran_psprep Dec 20 '13 at 20:25
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I really don't think the tone of the question is the key here. The point isn't to focus on this 'costing a qualified employee a job' and more to focus on 'someone with a disability is underperforming, how do you address this professionally?' –  jmac Dec 22 '13 at 3:33

9 Answers 9

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Disability is a lack of certain abilities, just abilities considered ubiquitous. That what I suggest treating it like.

"I had to go to this doctors appointment"

Any employee can use this excuse, and any employee is expected to inform the company in advance if the appointment is scheduled or to inform the company right away, if it's an unplanned visit.

"I wasn't able to do it due to my disability"

This is equal to "I found out that I'm not able to do this" or "I'm not able to do this" if it's something discussed before. Again, it has nothing to do with being disabled in particular. Everybody can find out that they're not able to do something - even after they've been assigned the task.

The professional way of dealing with these issues towards a disabled person is to be aware that these issues are relevant regardless of disabilities and deal with them as one would towards a not-disabled person. What ever that means for the particular company and it's culture.

Addendum:

So how to address topics like this with team members? The most imporant thing is to praise in public and criticize in private.

  • ask the other person to join you in an otherwise empty meeting room or office or similar place
  • explain your observation (they did not notify the team of appointments in advance; their self-assessment of abilities seems incomplete)
  • point out why getting it right is important for your team or company (company guidelines, rules and regulations come in handy)
  • suggest steps the other person can take to do better in the future
  • give motivation for why they should change their behaviour (respect, productivity, or what ever motivates you team member)

It may look like it, but don't treat this like a monologue. Listen to the other person, too. There may be something going on, you're not aware of.

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Hey CMW, like I told you in The Workplace Chat, this would be far better if it told my friend how to address this with the coworker. Saying to treat the employee the same doesn't cover how to actually do that professionally in this case (which is not the same). –  jmac Dec 20 '13 at 16:40
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@jmac There you go. I hope this helps your friend. –  CMW Dec 21 '13 at 19:33

There is a very large difference between, telling your boss as soon as you know that the disability will be a problem on a particular task and using it as an excuse when something isn't done afterwards.

It is unclear if your friend is this person's boss or not, so I will addess both conditions.

First if the person with the diability is not your subordinate, all you can legitimately do, is make it clear when this person's failure to inform in advance is causing an issue for your ability to complete your work. At this point, it becomes the supervisior's reponsibility to handle. If it is not affecting your ability to complete your own tasks, then simply butt out, it is none of your business what is happening.

IF the friend is the boss, then the options are different. First you need to discuss the issue with HR to know what you can and cannot say and exactly how much accomodation you should be giving. Next you need to discuss with the individual the problem of not meeting deadlines and the problem of excuses. You need to make it clear when you need to know if the disability is going to affect the ability to complete the task, so you can reassign it or move the deadline.

You need to consider things like scheduled doctor's appointments in setting deadlines, so you need to know in advance as much as possible and immediately if there is an emergency requiring the person to leave for the doctor. In no case should the person be leaving without you being informed unless an ambulance was called (Even in this case, you are likely to know about it).

Doctor's appointments are not an excuse for not letting someone know how this will affect work deadlines. Yes, you may need to accomodate the appointments in setting deadlines, but you can only do this when informed in advance. If the person has regularly scheduled appointments (such as for dialysis) you need to think about those in all task assignment deadlines to make sure you are not giving more work than the person can do in the time available. But you can do none of this until you know, in advance, the schedule. Check with HR, but I see no issue in asking someone who is expecting a disability accomodation to provide such a schedule on a weekly basis.

As far as the excuse of I couldn't do it due to my disability, you need to make sure the person is clear that this is something that must be brought to you immediately as soon as the person figures out there is a problem. Then the two of you can figure out if it is something where an accomodation of some sort can be made or if the task should be reassigned.

As the supervisor of a disabled employee, you have the resopnsibility to discuss what accomodations are needed and what the business needs from the employee in order to make appropriate accomodations. At the same time the employee must be aware that no business has to retain an employee who, after the accomodations are factored in, is not pulling his weight.

So if he appears to be using disability as an all-purpose excuse to avoid doing his job, you need to make sure he knows he can't play that game. So you need to have documented meetings where you discuss openly what he can and cannot do and what the expectations on both sides are as far as accomodation and then you need to document when he does not hold up his end of the bargain. Because there is potential her for legal action if you give him a poor apraisal or fire him, you need to be espceially careful how you document things and exactly what steps you take. That is why it is critical to get HR in the loop early and keep them there through the whole process.

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Yet the doctor's appointment wasn't scheduled or informed ahead of time

It is proper etiquette to inform team members well in advance when any absence from work is known ahead of time. This should not matter if a person has any disabilities. It could be handled with a simple request to inform the team, such as:

Bob, I know you sometimes need to go to the doctor for X. When you schedule these appointments in advance, could you please let us know too? It will help us better schedule team meetings and timelines and we'll all be able to work more efficiently.

Of course, if the doctor's appointments come up very suddenly, possibly due to this person's condition, there's not much they can do. Still asking this individual to give notice of an absence due to an appointment, even if it is the next day, would be OK, I think.

Some companies have policies about needing notes from doctor's after taking more than a certain amount of time off for doctor visits. If the company in question has such a policy, then it is probably OK for your friend to request a note for sudden/unplanned visits. And if the appointments are legit, getting a note that simply says "Bob visited on YYYY-MM-DD for a check up for his condition" shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Yet the employee informed the company of tasks that he couldn't do due to the disability, and this sort of task was never mentioned, even after being assigned to the employee.

If they can't perform Task X, maybe someone else can take on the extra Task X work, and do less of Task Y so that the individual in question can pick up extra Task Y work.

It sounds like management knows that the person cannot perform Task X and it sounds like management still wants this person on the team. This might mean hiring additional resources, or shifting some tasks to the other teams, but resolving this problem might require discussions with management if reallocating tasks within the team is not a possible solution. Management may need to help find a way to ensure that all of the Task X assignments gets completed on time.

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@jmac: That's a good point. Without calling the doctor, there's no way to know for sure. Your friend could try calling the doctor, but it would probably be resented by the employee, if they even consent to giving the doctors' phone number. If the company has an HR policy about needing a note after so many unplanned visits (some companies have such policies - I know we have some here), that would be a good way to verify that the appointments are legit. And if they are legit, getting a doctor's note at the end of the appointment shouldn't be too difficult. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Dec 20 '13 at 16:56

In a word? Equally.

So if the employee has signed a contract stating that he can perform the tasks therein yet claims he now cannot; unless he has a degenerative illness which has changed his circumstances, you treat them with equal rights. That is, treat them like any other employee that cannot or rather will not perform the tasks agreed. This means sitting down with the employee and finding out what tasks they can no longer do adequately and if there is any way you can assist them in performing these tasks.

As for the doctors appointments, it depends on the illness really. If it has sudden onset symptoms there's not alot you can do about it, you were aware of his condition before hiring and agreed to hired him anyway. If not then you need to sit the employee down and discuss a relevant and fair notice period for doctors appointments.

NOTE: My answer is assuming your friend is responsible for this employee. If they are peers and he has concerns then his only action is to bring the situation up with someone who this employee is the responsibility of.

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I think also many disabilities can have worse days than others so I think the first thing to find out is whether there is a particular issue going on right now (which would correlate with unplanned doctors appt). –  timpone Dec 20 '13 at 15:43

The important thing to realize is right here:

The coworker was hired by the company for "workplace diversity" rather than on merit.

This means that the coworker is not going anywhere and management is not likely to take any corrective action against them. I am not saying that there is action that should be taken just that to remove those options from the list of achievable goals in dealing with the situation.

So the best thing your friend can do as this persons team lead is make the best of the situation. I would assign tasks that are not challenging, and not time sensitive. I would document any instance in which the employee came in late with out prior notice, or said that a task was beyond their abilities because of the disability. Any time a task is assigned get them to agree that this task is something they feel they can complete, and assign someone to assist as needed even for tasks that should not require much help.

I would not go to punishment detail type of work. This could be used against you but there are tasks that need to be done that many people find to be chores that are easy but time consuming. These types of assignments should be right up this persons alley, and it should provide value since your highly productive workers will not have to spend as much time on these chores.

Most importantly do everything you can to make this person feel that they are an important part of the team. You might find that this person starts to contribute more when they feel useful rather than just a box to check on some form that goes to the government to save the company at tax time.

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How much experience of "the world of work" does the disabled employee have in general? As their team leader, it may be that your friend needs to step up and outline acceptable behaviour and company policy (where appropriate) to their team member.

Is the employee aware that they should be notifying their employer in advance about medical appointments? Your friend should ensure that this is done in a constructive manner, and then hold their team member accountable for how they follow through on that advice.

Is the employee aware that they need to be flagging up issues that prevent them from doing their work as those issues arise, not simply trotting them out afterwards as an explanation for why work was not done? Again they should be coached on this in a constructive manner, and then held accountable for how they behave afterwards.

As a team leader, your friend does need to deal with this issue or else it will build resentment in the team. They might need to do so with some sensitivity and respect for the needs of the individual concerned (but of course I'm sure they would anyway) but ignoring it is a good way to fail both the 'problem' employee and the rest of the team.

On the last point in particular, it's sensible to accept that some people require "reasonable adjustments" to their working environment to complete their work effectively. For example: I'm half deaf myself, and this means that the people who work with me have to accept that I might not hear them sometimes, especially in a noisy environment or if I'm on the phone... it would not be an excuse for me ignoring someone.

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+1 for 'your friend needs to step up and outline acceptable behaviour and company policy (where appropriate) to their team member' –  jmac Dec 22 '13 at 3:39

It is not the responsibility of the employee to confront the coworker.

The phrases:

  • "workplace diversity" rather than on merit.
  • giving excuses due to his disability.

point to somebody already deciding that the coworker isn't pulling their weight.

If they have a concern they need to talk to their manager about it. That is the professional way to handle it. In some jurisdictions the company may even be required to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled employee. In some cases the average coworker isn't fully informed about the disability and the accommodation.

This may be a HR issue, due to the fact that the company doesn't want to be accused of discrimination.

If the relationship isn't as coworkers but as a manger, you still should go to HR for advice. They can advise you on how to accommodate the disability, and how to work on the performance issues with the disabled employee.

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First of all, whatever your friend does, I'd recommend him to constructive about how he handles it. Dialog is the key to a mutually beneficial outcome, and your friend has to man up and try to approach his employee with a clear, non-confronational story. Don't start accusing him straight awway, but get the best picture possible.

I obviously can't tell from the story what the disability is, so I'm going to assume it is a physical one that needs care from time to time. (maybe severe diabetes or something)

Doctors appointments are usually scheduled a bit in advance, unless they're emergencies. This means that they can and should be reported ASAP, and that the employee has to be told he has a responsibility to do this. If he hasn't been told to do so, then it really is time to make this clear. There's nothing wrong about setting a clear standard to adhere to. Forgetting to do this after he has been instructed, and then using it as a shield would really be a big red flag for me, disability or not.

Also, agree on performance metrics and keep track of the success rate. Initially perhaps without setting any serious targets, but maybe introducing a some kind targets once the bounds of his performance capabilities have been mapped. When faced with a slump, he can then be asked for the role his disability has in this lowering of productivity. It could be that the job is somehow hindering him without that being obvious to your friend. Clear data will help to support any discussions on problem areas and can help in identifying what needs to change.

Getting a clear picture is a prerequisite before taking any formal actions like formal warnings or dismissal.

Besides IANAL: All of this has to be logged, so that there's a paper trail if there's any dispute. I think that jurisdiction does matter, and he should consult HR before starting off on this tract. They (should) know what is allowed and what isn't when it comes to job evaluations and anti-discriminiation laws.

Once there's a clear paper trail you can start working on improving the results, and if he fails to respond in a credible manner, start thinking of consequences.

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Talk to HR. If the employee is making claims about their disability impeding their capacity to do the job, it is worth bringing an HR representative into play. Your friend is not in a position to judge whether the excuses are valid or not, and making a call either way could be a mistake.

An initial chat with HR should clarify matters, and if they agree with the apparent opinion that the employee's excuses are not valid, then he should bring them into a 3 person chat. That way the employee is reassured that they are being fairly dealt with; if they are abusing their status then they may be more likely to misconstrue (intentionally or not) a private conversation between 2.

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