Is Speaking an Essential Qualification For an HR Pro?

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By Eric B. Meyer

Whether you work in 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. Damn, you’re busy!

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

Or not.

Stroke made it difficult for HR specialist to speak

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

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

  • The plaintiff, a Human Resources specialist for the City of Spokane, Washington, 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 given an accommodation, the City’s doctors recommended and the City placed the plaintiff on medical layoff for 60 days with a subsequent re-evaluation at the end of that period.

Is speaking an essential part of the job?

The plaintiff did not return after 60 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.

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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?

What the Court said

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…

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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4 Comments on “Is Speaking an Essential Qualification For an HR Pro?

  1. Hmmm… that’s interesting. I can envision an HR Specialist job that’s basically paperwork, with communication via email sufficient. I think it just depends. Speaking is a default, but that doesn’t mean the job couldn’t have gotten done without it. Would employers have found it inconvenient? Sure. Could they have gotten used to it? Who knows? I think the employer should have tried it out.

  2. As an HR person (or former thereof) that loves email, I’d say that the ability to physically speak with someone is not an essential function of the job, especially if it were a larger organization/company that had other people in a similar position that could to any requisite speaking.

    When I was the main/only HR person at my medium-sized non-profit, I did the entirety of open enrollment via email. It worked beautifully!

    Though I could imagine a very physical-meeting oriented culture where it really IS essential for the HR person to speak/conduct meetings, and that would obviously have gone the other way… but it’s truly hard for me to imagine a culture where that would be so much the case that it becomes “essential.”

  3. As the only HR professional in a multi-site manufacturing company, in this job the ability to physically speak is an essential function because it is necessary to provide guidance and discussion to a variety of manages and supervisors across the range of HR topics, and especially in employee relations and contract negotiations. You lose the emotional and tonal impact if all communication is done by email or in writing.

  4. I think it’s important to address every form of communication. I mean, sure, if
    you’re mostly a recruiter, you’ll combine telephone with e-mail and
    face-to-face communication. If you’re dealing with the more administrative
    talks of HR, you’ll also have to combine the three, maybe show a bit more
    empathy towards the employee than to a potential one, but still, you need to
    know how to choose your words right. And like I said, it depends on the type of
    communication; know when to keep it short and simple and when to give details.

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