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Linking ADA Compliance to Corporate Culture

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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The recent settlement by Starbucks Coffee Co. for unlawfully firing a Texas woman with dwarfism brings up the importance of not just failing to reasonably accommodate a disabled individual but to ensure that such decisions are appropriate within the company's culture.

Last month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Starbucks had agreed to pay $75,000 to Elsa Sallard, who was fired by a manager at an El Paso Starbucks location. The manager claimed she would pose a "danger" to customers and employees if she continued to work as a "barista" making and serving coffee.

According to the EEOC, Sallard had offered to use a stool or small stepladder to more easily perform the required tasks, but the manager refused.

After the EEOC filed a lawsuit charging Starbucks with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to reasonably accommodate Sallard's disability, the company settled the case and agreed to provide ADA training to all managers and supervisors at the company's El Paso locations.

"Starbucks' swift action to work constructively with the EEOC in this case ... sends the right signal from the corporate office," Robert A. Canino, regional attorney for the EEOC's Dallas District Office, said, when announcing the settlement.

"The Starbucks customer environment is one that is often considered comfortable and progressive," he said. "By fostering that same environment for people behind the counter, Starbucks reinforces a positive public image."

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Starbucks officials did not return phone calls for comment.

Stephen Paskoff, founder and president at ELI Inc., a legal and compliance training firm in Atlanta, says making ADA determinations "is not just about legal, it's also about culture -- is this the way the company wants to treat people? You need someone who is able to link not to just a narrow legal concern, but the overall enterprise impact of an HR decision."

Abi Kistler, a blogger at lawyersandsettlements.com, says companies are in a "sticky wicket" because the risk of liability differs when dealing with job candidates versus employees, noting that "it's harder to prove discrimination for not hiring" a job candidate than it is for when a company does not seek to accommodate an employee.

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