Under the ADA, is talking an essential job function for an HR Specialist?

Whether a department of many, or just one, your job as an HR professional has you juggling many balls. You’re running an open enrollment, conducting a workplace investigation, recruiting, wage-setting. Cot’ damn, you’re busy!

To get those tasks done, you’d better have the gift of gab.

Or not.

Is verbal communication an essential function for a Human Resources Specialist? A federal court just examined this question under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Click through for the answer…

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Here are the basic facts if Carlson v. City of Spokane:

  • The plaintiff, a Human Resources Specialist for the City of Spokane, suffered a stroke.
  • After a period of leave and various other accommodations, the plaintiff’s doctor recommended, that the City accommodate the plaintiff, who had difficulty speaking after the stroke, with a one-handed keyboard and speech recognition software, among other things.
  • Concerned that the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of her job, even if accommodation, the City’s doctors recommended, and the City placed the plaintiff on medical layoff for sixty days with a subsequent reevaluation at the end of that period.
  • The plaintiff did not return after sixty days for another medical evaluation, nor did she return to work anytime thereafter.

In a subsequent lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that the City had failed to accommodate her disability. 

The City, relying on a combination of the job description and past experience of other HR professionals, argued that verbal communication was an essential part of the HR Specialist job and no reasonable accommodation(s) existed to enable the plaintiff to speak with others. 

The plaintiff, on the other hand argued that “verbal communication is merely a physical requirement of her position and thus is not relevant to determining whether she is a qualified individual under the ADA.” Thus, the plaintiff posited that “effective verbal communication is more appropriately characterized as a qualification standard than an essential function of the position and thus is not necessary to determine whether she is a qualified individual under the ADA.”

So what do you think? Would any jury have difficulty concluding that an HR Specialist has to speak to others in order to perform the job? According to the Court, that answer is yes:

“Although Defendants have undoubtedly established that some degree of communication is necessary to carry out the essential functions of the HR Analyst position, this Court is not convinced verbal communication is the only means by which employees can effectively communicate. Rather, as Plaintiff contends, verbal communication might merely be considered a method by which the other essential functions explicitly listed in the job description are performed. On the other hand, if the ability to effectively speak is necessary to carry out the essential functions of the HR Analyst position, then a jury may find that oral communication is an implicit part of those same essential functions and thus an essential function in itself.”

Hmmm…Did the court get this right?

Hit me up in the comments below…