Disability Issues in the Public Workplace
Eloise, a supervisor at the Federal Administration Agency (FAA), was faced with trying to ensure productivity when one of her workers became ill, and was not maintaining her level of work. Brenda, who had been a computer programmer for the Management Information Systems Support Division of the FAA for nine years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 1991. She left work immediately to have an operation and to start treatments. Brenda was supposed to return to work after the medical procedure so Eloise reached out to her in February. Brenda stated that she did not feel up to it, that she would continue to use her sick leave and would return in March. Seeing that Brenda would not be back in the near future, Eloise asked the other workers in the office to “pitch in” and help pick up the slack in work due to her absence. To entice one employee to pitch in, she upgraded his work status from a GS7 to a GS9 (which is what Brenda’s status was) until Brenda returned. In March, Brenda could not return to work on her scheduled date and had her medical leave extended until she became better accustomed to the chemotherapy treatments.
Brenda returned to work on April 1st. She was apparently not up to speed and could not handle the work that was assigned to her. In addition, she stated that she needed some accommodations in order to stay at work. These accommodations included rest hours during the workday and the need to leave work early on certain days. Eloise allowed these accommodations. When Brenda started taking breaks and putting her feet up on her desk to relax, the other workers didn’t seem to mind, and they would even try to be quiet around her. Brenda felt like the other workers had changed their attitude towards her and “freeze up when she came into the room.” Eloise tried to explain that it would be natural for the others to feel uncomfortable around her and recommended that Brenda speak to Employee Counseling. Brenda refused and soon thereafter started to call in sick again. Even with Brenda’s return, the other workers still had to continue doing her work. The worker that Eloise upgraded to a GS9 was returned to GS7 upon Brenda’s return. He refused to do Brenda’s work unless he was reinstated to GS9 status. When Brenda was at work, she didn’t meet her deadlines and resentment started to grow in the office. There were resentments because Brenda didn’t look sick and the other workers felt that she was just taking advantage of the situation.
During the summer, Brenda’s attendance became spotty and tensions grew even higher because of her push-backed deadlines. Productivity began to suffer because of these missed deadlines and the overworking of the other employees. Brenda was out of sick time and the other employees even donated their leave time (25 days) to her through the Voluntary Leave Transfer Program. By October, Brenda had reached the end of her sick leave benefits and had finished her course of treatment, but she continued to miss work. Eloise called the personnel officer to get some advice.
The real problems that exist in this case in our viewpoint are the approach Eloise has taken to managing Brenda’s absence in relationship to the other employees in the office and her one on one handling of Brenda’s initial return to work after treatment of her illness. Eloise has taken a piecemeal approach in her attempt to make up for the loss of Brenda’s productivity during her absence and then her reintegration into the office workforce on her return.
Upon first being informed by one of her subordinates, Brenda, that she would be out of work due to a diagnosis of breast cancer, Eloise, the supervisor in charge of her section took a very humanistic and natural approach to Brenda’s situation. General statements of consolation and support by Brenda upon her learning of Eloise’s health crisis ranged from “I’m so sorry . don’t worry about anything . don’t worry about a thing here . whatever you want” to a statement she made to her two weeks after the surgery “everything’s fine here, no problems at all.” All of these statements of support by Eloise were surely genuine on her part, but may have been of poor choice from a management perspective based on the initial reactions and retorts made by Brenda. Supervisor Eloise in all her statements of support for Brenda never once received a positive statement of any kind in return from Brenda. Certain comments by Brenda should have been understood for the impending obstinacy that Eloise would confront as the situation developed over the year.
Eloise’s initial statements after Brenda’s sympathetic response upon learning the news of her illness should have been an omen for the supervisor to realize that she didn’t exactly have a “team player” on board that was looking forward to a speedy recovery and a return to work to put the cancer behind her. Brenda signaled her unwillingness to return to work from the beginning by such comments as “I’ll have to leave for a while – maybe a long while . I don’t know exactly when I’ll be back . God knows what’ll happen to me.” Additional statements made by Brenda should have alerted Eloise to the mental instability that was besetting her employee, evidently brought on by the trauma of her illness. Brenda’s unwillingness to share with the office the nature of her illness added to a climate of suspicion they already had about the shy, quiet and friendless employee.
Statements made by Brenda in her phone call with Eloise two weeks after her surgery were the final clue for the supervisor to realize that Brenda would be out for a longer period of time than the normal convalescing cancer patient. Her self-pitying statements of feeling terrible and being in a lot of pain followed by combative statements about her agency’s priorities in wanting her to return to work should have been the last time she (the supervisor) initiated a conversation with Brenda. Instead they continued to communicate and Eloise continued to extend her leave from the agency. When Brenda did return on an agreed date, she made complaints about how her work assignments were overwhelming. Eloise once again relented and gave her special dispensation to put her feet up on the desk and take extended breaks during the day. Over the next several weeks, Brenda’s paranoia at work due to her physical and now mental impairment became a larger issue for her supervisor. Brenda started to accuse the rest of the staff of isolating her and treating her differently. At this point Eloise recommended Employee Counseling, which Brenda vehemently refused, saying all of the others, not her, needed the counseling. One can only hope that Eloise had been documenting these meetings with Brenda. In addition to documenting them, the presence of a third person in the office would have been advisable, especially considering the deteriorating mental condition of Brenda. The situation now reached a point where decisive action should have been taken.
Eloise’s second problem was her mishandling of the rest of her subordinates in the wake of Brenda’s departure and erratic return. Brenda is first described as a shy and quiet employee that did not have many friends among her colleagues. Taking this into account, Eloise, if she understood human nature more than she apparently did, should have realized that her call for the other employees to increase productivity out of a sense of duty, loyalty and teamwork may very well fall on deaf ears. The nature of civil service workers is not one of a proprietary interest. If they do more work or less work, the civil service system does not reward them – or punish them – for their productivity. Brenda’s “standoffish” personality surely would not support any increased productivity to make up for her decreased work ability by her co-workers out of a sense of loyalty, except for a very limited time period, which is exactly what happened in this case. Eloise should have been better able to read these conditions before asking for other members of the office to “hang in there”.
The case study describes the office that Eloise is in charge of as being staffed by 19 people. Brenda worked with a group of four other programmers in this office. The office provided computer-programming support for a large agency. Computer emergencies would happen daily where they would have to troubleshoot a problem for a client. They also wrote large and small programs for a variety of applications. Most of the work had tight deadlines and required sustained involvement by the same person. Eloise tried to use stop gap measures to manage what she should have been able to perceive and predict would be more than one long term absence from her department. One of the other programmers in Brenda’s group was already absent a high amount due to pregnancy. Brenda called a meeting and told her staff that there would be no hiring to cover for the absences and the current employees, especially those in Brenda’s group would have to pick up the slack while she was out. As it became evident to Eloise that Brenda’s absence would be extended, she offered one of the co-workers in her group a temporary raise in pay scale until Brenda’s return.
When Brenda returned, the employee’s temporary pay raise was revoked, but his workload was not reduced. The employee complained to his supervisor to no avail. At this point, the worker refused to do the extra work that he felt was not in his job description. As a manager, Eloise preached the importance of teamwork to her staff. Having your employees work together to accomplish work goals is an important tool for a manager, but the manager must realize that when some employees stop being part of the team (for whatever the reason i.e. pregnancy, cancer), new members must be added to the team. The remaining team members shouldn’t be asked to do twice the workload. To solve her problem in the office – handling the workload because of the absences – our group believes that she should have reorganized the workgroups. The case study states there are 19 employees under her supervision. The loss of the one employee (Brenda) for extended leave causes just a 6% reduction in the total workforce of the staff. However, it has the effect of a 25% reduction in workers in her immediate four-person work group. Couple this with the fact that an additional employee of this group is excessively absent due to a pregnancy condition, this one effected group is down 50%, compared with 12% for the entire office. Eloise should use her management skills to move individuals to balance the workload in each of her workgroups. The use of measures like temporary pay raises and inspirational calls for “teamwork” will have a long-term detrimental effect. The eventual decreases in pay will subconsciously having an effect on a person’s productivity. The false promises of the importance of teamwork while co-workers are receiving special treatment will lead to cynicism that will harm workplace cooperation in the future.
The reorganization of the staff to equalize job assignments is the proper way to handle unbalanced long-term absences if no additional hiring is allowed. Eloise’s compassion for her absent employees is admirable, but her first focus must be on the employees that are pulling the wagon. Employees that can no longer fill the job requirement because of temporary incapacity should be referred through Employee Counseling or the Human Relations Department of the agency to a useful responsibility that fits their ability for the time of their incapacity.
At the end of the case study, it is ten months that have elapsed from Brenda’s first notification to Eloise that she would be receiving cancer treatments that would last several months at the minimum. After ten months, Eloise now decides she has to talk “seriously” to Brenda about her situation. A mistake many managers make, including Eloise, is that they sometimes forget just what their responsibilities are. Eloise should have from the beginning of Brenda’s convalescence taken a firmer hand with what options the ailing employee could take advantage of and also what her work responsibilities were. Especially in the face of the recalcitrance she faced from Brenda. At this point, the only avenue Eloise has to offer Brenda is an unpaid leave of absence. Brenda may very well file an employment discrimination grievance against Eloise and her office. Brenda already laid the groundwork for this when she complained to her supervisor that people in the office treated her differently because they knew of her cancer. The importance of documentation and third party witnesses during interactions with contentious employees is very important in the decisions rendered on a discrimination grievance after it is filed. Many discrimination cases are settled by employees, even if there is not hard evidence that they did discriminate against the plaintiff. The cost of litigation and the risk of catastrophic loss make it simpler to settle a case. This unfortunately leaves a stain on the manager and the office that the suit has been filed against.
The other solution that Eloise may try at this time is something that she should have done months ago and that is to reorganize the office. Office reorganization would have removed Brenda from her time-critical position and placed her in a less demanding role to suit her mental and physical state. Whoever in the office that is given the more demanding work that Brenda was responsible for can be given the higher pay scale on a permanent basis, rather than temporarily.
In conclusion, our group believes that when Supervisor Eloise is approached in the future by an employee with special circumstances, she will not rely on her good-naturedness and empathy, but rather the facts and the policies of the agency that employs her.