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The Sound of Accommodation: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Published on December 16, 2010 by Donna Seale

I recently found myself at the place I love to grab a nice, hot cup of tea (I’m a sucker for a good

It’s a hip little place, where lots of people like to hang out on a Saturday and read their papers or chat with friends.  Music is always playing in the
background.  There’s always a line up and orders come fast and furious from customers and are echoed back to the person making the chosen beverage.

As I was waiting to place my order, the young male employee at the cash register caught my eye.   And, no, not for the reason you might be thinking.  I
noticed him because he was very tall, and, like I said, young (I pegged him to be about 20) and he kept leaning his head downwards when taking customer orders.  It struck me as…well, odd.

So, then it was my turn.  I indicated what I wanted.  And, the young man leaned forward as he had for previous customers, hand now cupped to his right ear, and he said, looking upward to where the music was wafting, “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing.  Could you repeat your order?”  As I was about to repeat my order, a person who looked somewhat in authority came up behind this young man and said “how are things going?”  He indicated that he was starting to get the hang of things and all was well.  It was then that I clued into the fact that he must have been a new employee.  He looked at me and asked for my order again and, raising my voice a few decibels louder, I repeated it.  Order now placed, I waited for that hot cup of tea.  I couldn’t help, though, but continue to look at the young man while I waited.   For each customer after me he leaned over, hand cupped to his ear, asking them to repeat their order.  Everyone obliged him, orders continued to be placed, people kept leaving with their hot beverages in hand and all was well with the world.

Or was it?

Call it an occupational hazard, but I couldn’t help thinking about how wrong this all was.   And how easy it likely was to fix.

Here, you had a new employee who had an ‘invisible’ disability – a hearing impediment that would not have been apparent had he not mentioned it to me (he wore no obvious hearing aid).  His disability conflicted with his ability to perform his job due to the environment he was being required to work in.
That music wafting in the air?   While perhaps not an issue for non-hearing impaired employees, it clearly was an issue for this employee.  So much an issue that he felt it necessary to alter how he was doing his job, from leaning in to hear customers to going so far as to disclosing to them the fact he was ‘hard of hearing’. 

This all made me wonder whether the employee had advised his employer about the challenges he was having or whether the employer had
noticed the very clear signs that the new employee was struggling.  The entire situation screamed “duty to accommodate.”

But was I the only one listening?

You may be thinking that this is a situation that would never happen in your workplace because all of your managers and supervisors are up-to-speed on their legal obligations when it comes to accommodation of an employee with a disability.  And, your employees know that they should come to you if they have a special need arising from a characteristic that is protected under human rights legislation (such as a disability).  But, can you confidently say that

the real life situation I experienced would absolutely, positively not happen in your workplace?  If you can answer ‘yes’ to that question, then kudos
to you, you’re ahead of the curve.  I would hazard a guess, though, that many employers would not feel as confident.  And, that’s where things start to
break down in the workplace.

That new employee who is struggling to hear what customers are saying?   Unless he feels comfortable bringing his need for accommodation to his employer’s attention (because you’ve laid the ground work for that), he’ll continue to struggle.  Unless his supervisor picks up on the signals of a need to at least have a discussion about accommodation, the supervisor is going to start to think the employee isn’t performing to expectation or maybe “just isn’t right for the job.” 

Over time, the employee’s going to start disliking his job.  He might even become resentful of the environment he is required to work in. 
He may even even quit.  Or you may fire him for poor performance.  And now you’ve spent time and energy training someone who could have turned out to be your best employee ever.

And you may now also have a human rights complaint on your hands.

Education is key here.   Your supervisors should understand that they need to be alert to signs that an employee may be having difficulty doing her job
as a result of a disability (among other characteristics).  They should be taught and encouraged to have an open dialogue with that employee in order to
understand what, if anything, might need to be done to remove the barrier that is negatively impacting her.   All employees, but especially ones who fall
into that vulnerable category because they are new to your workplace and young, need to be apprised of your human rights-related policies and procedures
(you do have those don’t you?) and assured that you stand behind those policies and procedures so they feel comfortable accessing them.

It really is worth the time and effort to put these minimal education measures in place so that everyone is singing the same tune, listening to the same
song.  And, maybe, just maybe, they’ll know to turn down the volume on the music when it just isn’t working for everybody.

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