Benefits

Burgers and Accommodations

By Jon Hyman

Mar. 23, 2015

I think a lot about accommodations, partly because it’s an issue with which most employers frequently deal, and partly because I have a child with some issues of his own that, from time to time, require some accommodations.

Employers get themselves all worked up over whether they should, or must, accommodate an employee’s “special” request for this or that. They think that employees are always out to get one over on their employer — to take advantage. To the contrary, I think most employees just want to do their jobs well (or reasonably well), and, when circumstances interfere with that desire (whether disability, religion or family issues), they ask for some help to let them get from point A to job (reasonably) well-done.

My family spent part of our winter vacation on a quick trip to Washington, D.C. The Old 97’s, my 8-year-old daughter’s favorite band, was playing two nights, and we decided to pack up the car and make the drive to our nation’s capital to catch the less raucous show the day before New Year’s Eve (and to see some of the sights).

My younger child, Donovan, who is 6, has Celiac disease. Traveling with someone who has a food allergy is tricky enough. When that same person is your typical 6-year-old picky eater, it’s darn near impossible.

Before we left home, I called the concert venue, where we planned to eat dinner during the opening act, to ask about gluten-free options for kids. They assured me that the wait staff and chefs were well-versed in gluten-free preparations. For example, they could serve a bun-less cheeseburger (not his favorite, but he’d manage). When they told me that they had a dedicated fryer for French fries, I knew we’d be fine. He loves fries, but most restaurants cannot accommodate him because of the risk of cross contamination from shared fryers.

When we sat down for dinner, however, the server told us that the downstairs concert hall has a different, more limited menu than the upstairs restaurant, and they don’t serve a kid’s menu or fries downstairs. Uh oh! I explained my son’s dietary issues, and that I had called ahead. She explained that they were really crowded and could not make any promises, but that she would see what she could do. No more than five minutes later she returned with a thumbs-up, letting us know that a bun-less kid’s cheeseburger with gluten-free French fries would be on the way. Crisis averted.

Employers, there is a lesson to be learned from how the venue handled our issue. It would have been easy for it to stick to its, “We’re too busy” story, leaving Donovan with nothing to eat. Yet, given how simple it was for them to take an extra minute and go upstairs for the burger and fries, I would have been offended had they said no.

Translated: Don’t take the easy way out with your employees when they ask for accommodations for a disability, religion or other protected reason. Even if you are legally right (and the odds are good that you won’t be), you will leave the employee feeling offended and upset. Those feelings breed discontent, which in turn breeds lawsuits.

Indeed, before you dismiss an employee’s request for an accommodation as silly, outrageous or just too much of a pain, stop, think and decide whether the expense or difficulty in making the accommodation exceeds the cost and aggravation of defending against a possible discrimination lawsuit. The answer to that equation should, more often than not, guide your decision.

Requests for accommodations are not the demarcation on a battleground. Instead, they are a call for a middle ground. Employers need to recognize this truth and avoid starting wars that simply are not worth fighting.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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