The Cornell Just-in-Time Toolkit for Managers

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

Topic #8
When a Performance Issue Might Be Due To a Disability:
Addressing the Situation

An employee who is struggling

  • An engineer takes a much longer time than others to produce reports.
  • An administrator seems to be “spacing out” at meetings, missing vital information.
  • A nurse begins walking slowly and cannot complete medication rounds for patients on time.
  • A salesperson who appears agitated and distracted may be turning off customers.
  • A delivery truck driver seems to be having trouble using one arm and is walking slowly.
  • An accountant starts to lash out at co-workers in a way that’s disruptive to team productivity.

In situations like these, a manager may suspect that a disability could be impacting job performance, but the employee hasn’t told the manager he has a disability. What are the issues a manager needs to think through in addressing situations where they suspect a disability may be impacting performance or conduct?   

Begin by treating this as any other performance issue

All employees need feedback when their performance is not meeting expectations and all performance or conduct problems need to be clearly documented. This is the case whether or not a manager suspects that a performance problem is due to a disability. As soon as a performance issue becomes apparent, managers should do what they would do for any employee: hold a private, confidential conversation with the employee to address the issue in a clear and objective manner.  

Document performance, but keep your suspicions and speculations to yourself 

Performance issues need to be documented with clear and concrete descriptions of events and behaviors that indicate a performance issue. Managers should not document suspicions around disability in these files even if you think that the disability is contributing to the performance issue. 

Have a performance conversation--focus on concrete events, not vague causes or labels

During a performance conversation:

  • Do not discuss or document your speculations about a disability being the cause of the problem.
  • Begin by clarifying performance expectations.
  • Discuss the performance issue by focusing on real, concrete events that illustrate the problem, without speculating about the cause or using vague labels. For example:
    • Use this: “Yesterday during the meeting you raised your voice and used an aggressive tone when Joe gave his presentation.” Instead of this: “You seem to be harboring aggressive feelings toward others.”
    • Use this: “During the past week, you did not complete your rounds in time.” Instead of this: “You seem to be having a problem with your legs and feet.”
    • Use this: “Your last two reports were not done on time.” Instead of this: “It seems you have trouble with reading and concentrating.”

Then, pose a key question; sit back and LISTEN

Whether or not a disability is a cause of the performance problem, knowing the employee’s take on the issue is a key part of addressing the problem. Pose the following two powerful questions—questions you would pose for anyone having a performance issue. Then, sit back and LISTEN.

  • Is there anything you can tell me to help me understand this performance issue?
  • What can I do to support you in improving in this area?  

If the employee now tells their manager about a disability, the situation changes

When an employee discloses a disability, the situation and the conversation changes. No matter how the employee tells a manager about a disability (whether in medical terms or in plain English), the employer is now on notice that the accommodation process needs to be set in motion.  The performance review should be placed on hold until an accommodation is put into place.

Employees with disabilities can be held accountable, but with an accommodation

Employees with disabilities can be held accountable for their performance and conduct at work and can be disciplined or put on a performance improvement plan just like any other employee. Disciplinary or performance improvement actions taken before the employer was informed of the need for an accommodation do not have to be rescinded once this need is known. But further disciplinary actions should be put on hold until an accommodation is in place.  

But before taking action, consider this:

As a manager, are you considering taking action such as a performance improvement plan, a reprimand or a termination? First, contact your local HR Manager or Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177.  It’s important to ask yourself this question. Have you ever been informed that the worker has a disability that impacts her job functioning? Or is there a reasonable belief that the employee might need an accommodation (such as a person who uses a wheelchair needing an accommodation to reach higher shelving). 

  • If yes, a disciplinary or performance improvement action based on a fairly applied performance/conduct policy does not have to be rescinded, but the interactive process for an accommodation should be put into motion. Plan to re-evaluate the employee’s performance after the accommodation has been put into place.
  • If no, a manager can proceed with a disciplinary or performance improvement plan just as they would with any other employee.

When a termination action has begun 

Employees who first inform their manager of a disability in response to a termination action can still be held accountable for their prior performance and conduct. If this termination action is based on an existing performance or conduct code that is job-related and consistent with business necessity and is being applied fairly to all employees, the termination action can continue. In other words, if the employee’s performance prior to disclosing a disability would warrant termination for any employee, then this action would be justified for an employee with a disability. Before taking any termination action in this situation contact your local HR Manager or Cornell’s Medical Leaves Administration at 607.255.1177.

But remember this…It’s not just about performance problems

Too often, managers assume that disability automatically means performance deficits. Yet, research tells us that employees with disabilities perform as well as any other employee (DePaul University, 2007). Like anyone else, some workers with disabilities will be excellent performers; others not so much. A key job of a manager is to coach each employee (including those who have disabilities) so they can contribute 100% of their talents to your department or unit goals.  

And finally…An ounce of prevention

When all employees know that they can request an accommodation when a disability arises, they are more likely to make this request before a disability impacts their job performance. Build a culture of trust within your team and workplace to ensure that employees who need accommodations feel safe in coming forward to discuss their needs before a performance issue arises.  


DePaul University and Disability Works (2007).  Exploring the Bottom Line:  A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities.  Released January 28, 2007.  Accessed at