ADA: Â What Triggers The Interactive Process?

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”  A quote by Scott Hamilton, that apparently did wonders for winning a gold medal in figure skating.  Unfortunately, HR Managers can’t trigger the ‘Interactive Process’ for every bad attitude. Although, some bad attitudes might actually qualify as a trigger.

What is the initial trigger for the ADA machine to start chugging along is the question of the day.  Surely it’s not as secret as Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper. Something has to happen before the clear-headed and organized Compliance Coordinator starts turning the gears. There are letters and templates available to be printed.  A user manual is set-up as a chapter in the Employee Handbook. So what sets that interactive process into motion?

I have good news and bad news – there is no exact process to follow.  Yes, that’s both the good news and the bad news. It’s good because it allows you to create a process that works for your organization.  It’s bad because there is no absolute right or wrong way of doing things, so you must be diligent about having a defined process in place that is understood by not only the HR management, but also supervisors or any individuals managing people.

If you remember nothing I just said and nothing after this sentence, remember this – The trigger is the situation that makes anybody in management even think, ‘This employee or candidate might need a hand to be more successful.’  To that point, remember, this applies to potential employees going through the hiring process as well.

There are multiple possible triggers.  The most obvious and clear trigger is when an employee point blank states that they an accommodation of some sort, due to a medical condition, in order to be more effective.  Remember, even as easy as that sounds, it does not have to be in writing, nor must it include the words ‘accommodation’ or use the term ‘under the ADA;’ after all, why would we expect them to know the “right” words?

Another trigger, similar to the first is if the employee simply indicates they are having problems meeting their professional requirements due to a medical condition.  It is not part of their job to know accommodations may be available to them. It may not even be known to the manager which accommodations could be made. However, the supervisor or manager should at minimum recognize that this is a sign to get HR involved – now.  This is likely the trickiest of triggers, since as you do not want the employee to feel they are being scrutinized or treated differently in a negative way.

Consider this scenario:

Sarah approaches her supervisor to say, “I wanted to talk to you about my productivity numbers because I know you pull the outgoing calls report each day at noon.  Please don’t tell anybody, but I’ve been struggling with fertility for 3 years and I am finally pregnant, but I take a medication that makes me a bit sluggish for the first hour after I take it and I have to take it every day at exactly 10am.” Â

RESPONSE #1:  (good) Sarah’s supervisor responds, “Thank you for letting me know.  I would like to refer you to HR so we can talk about solutions for you to continue to be successful, while managing during this period of need for the medication.”

RESPONSE #2:  (bad) Manager responds “That must be difficult.  Perhaps I should remove you from the project if you aren’t able to handle the numbers.” Â

Sarah didn’t actually ask for an accommodation. However, she did give enough information for the manager to know that there was a medical component tied to her performance.  The first response shows a supervisor who may or may not know what the options are, but the approach acknowledges the employee has communicated a medical condition is impacting their work and shows support for the employee to remain doing their job if possible.  The second response may have had the exact same intention behind it, as the supervisor may have thought that removing Sarah from the project would be doing her a favor. However, it is more likely to be perceived by the employee as being penalized for having revealed a medical condition!  The second manager is not recognizing the situation as a trigger for possible reasonable accommodations, but simply jumping to the conclusion that the employee should just be removed from the job.

Another important trigger occurs when an employee has a known disability and their supervisor notices changes to performance that may be related to the disability.  This possible connection is enough for an employer to be on notice. This can also be tricky, as the employer should focus on the employee’s ability to be successful in the job, not specifically on the disability.  For example, an employee with special monitors due to a condition with their vision is noticed rubbing their eyes a lot and putting their head down in the afternoons and their productivity reports show a reduction in the afternoon period.  The supervisor can ask “Is everything feeling OK with your monitors? Do you think it might be time to do a calibration to ensure they are in line with your visual needs?” This is directly related to the equipment and the ability of the employee to be in optimal working conditions.  They would not want to ask “Is your vision getting worse? When did you last see your doctor?” Those questions inappropriately focus on the disability, not the performance.

The fourth trigger I’m going to chat about doesn’t even warrant being called a full trigger…. I’m going to call a ‘triglet!’  It should be used with great caution. Many may ask, “What if I think there is a medical condition impacting my employee’s work?  Can’t I ask them if there is something wrong so we can find a solution for their performance issues?” The important practical guidance from the EEOC1 is that the employer should speak with the employee about their performance – early and often – and should feel free to inquire if there is anything that could be impacting their performance or if there is anything the employer can do to help make them successful.  Remember there is some ownership on the part of the employee to initiate discussions about their medical condition. Otherwise, the employer, in their effort to be helpful, may fall into the trap of discriminating against the employee by ‘regarding them as disabled’ and treating them differently potentially when they are not. Â

My parting words of advice on this one is to – at a minimum – train anybody in a leadership role to recognize what might be a trigger and to make sure they get the right HR players involved immediately. Â


  • It takes more to train a new person than to accommodate an existing skilled person.
  • It is best to assume there is value and the employee isn’t just trying to work the system
  • When your staff feels valued, they are more likely to work harder.
  • The best process is open and ongoing communication about job expectations and performance.

As you determine if you are at the beginning of this interactive process or not, perhaps instead be guided by Robert M. Hensel, who noted “There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more.”


  1. EEOC “The Americans With Disabilities Act:  Applying Performance And Conduct Standards To Employees With Disabilities” – Scenario question #13 under III. Application of ADA Legal Requirements To Performance and Conduct Standards.
  2. EEOC “Enforcement Guidance” – Examples of requests for an accommodation:
  3. JAN (Job Accommodation Network) – How can employers recognize an accommodation request?