The Cornell Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers

Tips, checklists, and resources to help managers lead a disability inclusive workforce.

Topic #6
Effective Accommodation Discussions:
The 3 P's: Performance, Productivity & Preventing Turnover

A return on investment 

When you think of the costs of providing accommodations, consider first the costs of not providing them: lost productivity, lost goodwill or a lost employee. Employees who are accommodated are less likely to leave the job. It costs between 20% - 150% of annual salary to replace a lost employee (Holtom, Mitchell, Lee & Eberly, 2008). The average cost of a disability accommodation is about $500; over half of all accommodations cost nothing (Loy, 2014).   

Get the ball rolling

When an employee informs a manager about a disability that requires a change in the way they work, the employer is now on notice that the accommodation process needs to be set into motion. It’s important to note that the employee may not call their health concern a disability.  The accommodation process must start no matter how the employee informed the manager about their disability. The employee does not need to use any special legal or medical terms to put the employer on notice that an accommodation is needed. If it seems likely that this disability substantially limits one or more major life activities and will probably last six months or longer, the manager should treat this as an accommodation request. Begin by calling your local HR Manager or Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations.

The interactive process 

Ultimately, the employer makes the final decision about what accommodation will be put into place.  But the process to find an accommodation should be interactive, based on input from both the employee and employer.  

Focus on job impact; not on the disability

When a manager is discussing any disability with an employee, they should avoid the temptation to gather too much information about the employee’s disability. Stay focused on how the disability impacts the work. Do not delve into medical details about the employee’s present or past conditions.

Essential vs. marginal job functions

Managers are not required to eliminate essential functions of the job. Essential job functions are those that justify the existence of the job: driving for a truck driver, communicating with customers for customer support professionals, re-stocking inventory for stockers, etc. Marginal functions are not essential to the main goals of the job. Employers are not required to remove essential functions of the job as an accommodation. Marginal functions, though, can be removed or exchanged with co-workers as an accommodation option.  

About medical documentation

When an employee informs their manager about a disability that is not obvious, Medical Leaves Administration will collect medical documentation on behalf of the University if more information is needed to find an effective accommodation. Managers should not collect medical information from their employees. 

Can employers ask workers if they need accommodations?

If an employee has already told you about a disability, you can ask if they need an accommodation. If the employee has not told you about a disability, but you have a reasonable belief that an employee needs an accommodation in a particular situation, simply ask. Consider these situations:

  • An employee who uses a wheelchair will be attending an off-site staff meeting. The manager can ask the employee about what his/her accessibility needs will be regarding travel, the meeting room or the hotel room. (Be aware that airlines, restaurants and hotels cannot charge extra for accessible services or facilities that are required under the ADA.)
  • An employee who is deaf has been asked to present his idea for a product improvement at an upcoming meeting. The manager can ask this employee what accommodations they will need for this event.  

But what if I’m not sure if an accommodation is needed? 

Part of the job of a manager is to find out what any employee needs in order to be effective, whether or not the employee has a disability. If you are unsure whether an employee needs an accommodation, ask a few simple general questions—the same questions you would ask any employee.  For example: 

  • “Is there anything you’ll need to be effective for this meeting?”
  • “Are you OK for your travel arrangements for your work trip next month?”
  • “How can I better support you so you can complete your reports on time?”

If, when responding to these questions, the employee tells you they have a need related to a disability, the accommodation process should be put into place. Contact Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 or visit Disability Accommodations for next steps.

Should co-workers be told about an employee’s accommodation?

Co-workers should never be told about an employee’s disability or medical condition. Co-workers who are not affected by the accommodation should not be told anything. Co-workers who will need to do something differently because their colleague is using an accommodation should only be told about changes to their jobs. If they ask the reason for these changes, briefly point out that these changes are related to a personal issue of a co-worker. Remind them that adjustments like this are not special favors, but may be requested by any Cornell employee if needed. Do not mention the ADA as this would essentially be telling co-workers about an employee’s disability. All employees should continually be reminded that accommodations are not special treatment, but are the right of any employee who has a disability.

Having an accommodation conversation with the employee  

  • Start by contacting your local HR Manager and Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177 to find out more about the manager’s role in the accommodation process.
  • Start an accommodation discussion by focusing on:

The disability—Contact Medical Leaves Administration to understand it’s likely severity and duration.

The job—How does the disability impact essential functions of the job?

The person—What are the employee’s concerns at this point? 

  • Review the accommodation that could be used.
  • Will there be any “learning curve” or adjustment period? How will this be handled?
  • The impact of the accommodation on co-workers. How will this be addressed?
  • Who else needs to be told about the accommodation and why? What will they be told?
  • Review responsibilities, check-in meetings and next steps to ensure that the accommodation is effective.
  • Document the important points of the accommodation discussion including next action steps in the process and who is responsible for decisions associated with the accommodation. 

After the conversation—Check in 

  • How is the employee adjusting to the accommodation? 
  • Touch upon productivity expectations. Make sure reasonable productivity expectations are maintained when using the accommodation.
  • Disabilities often change over time. Check in to make sure the accommodation is still effective.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Employers must make a good faith effort to find an effective accommodation. This may mean making several attempts at finding an accommodation that will work. Generally, you cannot determine an employee with a disability is no longer qualified to do the job after a single attempt at finding an accommodation. 

Veterans with disabilities:  An asset to our workplace

Veterans bring a great deal to Cornell’s workplace: skills, teamwork, discipline and problem-solving abilities. This is no less true for veterans who have disabilities. Veterans with disabilities have rights to workplace accommodations under several laws. One of these laws is the Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA), which now extends employment rights to several groups of veterans, not just Vietnam era veterans. In 2014, VEVRAA was strengthened to include more accountabilities for employers in employing veterans with service-connected disabilities (as well as other categories of veterans). But at Cornell, we are fully committed to accommodating veterans with disabilities, not just because of the law, but because it makes good sense for our business. To find out more about Cornell’s resources for returning veterans, go to Cornell's Military Community Resources.


Holtom, B., Mitchell, T., Lee, T. & Eberly, M. (2008).  Turnover and retention research:  A glance at the post, a closer review of the present and a venture into the future.  The Academy of Management Annals.  Vol. 2, No. 1. 231-274.

Loy, B. (2014).  Workplace accommodations:  Low cost, high impact.  Job Accommodation Network Accommodation and Compliance Series.  Accessed at