NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Whether or not you're in a position to have people working under you, you've probably heard the adage a happy employee is a productive employee.
While many firms go all-in on that idea and go out of their way to keep workers comfortable, others may not have the means or the desire to accommodate your request for that more ergonomic chair you've been dreaming about. Thankfully, the government has a stick to take to those cheapskates to ensure workers' needs are met no matter what industry or city they are in.
Chances are the boss wants to make you happy, but getting what you want in the office can be a subtle art.
That being said, you can't just ask for a company car and expect that your threat to sue the company is enough to get what you want. To help you navigate the tricky world of what your employer has to provide for you and how to go about getting it, we tapped some employment experts for the details.
Use your disability
Let's establish the legal context for what your employer needs to give you right off the bat, as there are some clear federal guidelines set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act all companies must follow.
Frank Alvarez, head of the disability, leave and health management practice at
, notes that the regulations are much more inclusive since the ADA Amendments Act went into effect in 2009.
"In the past, people needed an impairment that was permanent or long-term to qualify for the ADA," Alvarez says. "Now, given the ADA Amendments Act, many people with short-term or temporary impairments may be covered under that law."
That means that if an employee can prove a medical condition that results in disability, Alvarez says, employers will take requests for accommodations very seriously.
The caveat? Make sure you have documentation.
"Employers may take an employee's word for it," Alvarez says, "but they are entitled to request medical documentation when the need for the accommodation is not obvious."
Use your "disability"
We have a tendency to separate our personal lives from our professional lives, but there are ways what we deal with outside of work can be used to improve the quality of life in the office. You may not think a condition you've been living with your entire life can get you some freebies in the office, but sometimes that may be exactly the case. Alvarez points to two examples.
People with impaired vision have generally found a solution to their eye problems by wearing glasses or contacts, but they may have a case for special accommodation in the office in requesting a flat-screen computer, for example.
"You want your employees to be comfortable," Alvarez says, "and flat screens can certainly be of great value to people with vision impairments."
Along the same lines, anxiety can usually be managed with medication, but when work conditions exacerbate the problem, employees may be entitled to a helping hand.
"A number of employers I've worked with are making employees share rooms when they travel as a way to conserve costs," Alvarez says. "But some employees with sleep apnea or anxiety disorders may have difficulty sharing a room, and so may be able to ask their employer for a single room instead."
Use the possibility of a disability
Whether or not you have a documented disability, there are a number of ways your work could lead to a physical impairment down the road. We know them most commonly as repetitive-stress injuries, the carpal-tunnel syndrome anyone working on a computer all day is probably already aware of.
"Employers have a general duty to provide a safe working environment in accordance with current laws," says Marc Mandelman, senior counsel at the Proskauer law firm. But, he adds, "it's in an employer's interest to provide, for example, an ergonomic work station that's likely to reduce the incidence of absenteeism or claims for workman's comp or disability down the road -- and may improve productivity at the same time."
While not every company will have the financial means to provide ergonomic workstations for their workers, any comfort issue that is serious enough to potentially cause problems down the road will be taken seriously, Mandelman says.
An office's creature comforts are part of the overall suite of perks and benefits a business uses to attract and retain top talent, so just like you would with a
, our experts say to treat your request for a faster computer or nicer chair as a negotiation.
"If the request is driven by reasons other than purely medical ones," Alvarez says, "I think it's foolish not to look at anything like that as a negotiation. Employers respect that and are prepared for such negotiations."
That means, he says, it makes sense to aim high and ask for more than you may expect to get, and then
meet your employer somewhere in the middle
Run the numbers
And as with a salary negotiation, numbers help. If you can provide data to show how productive you are and how valuable your contribution to the company is, it will make it that much easier for the employer to grant the request.
"Employees have to be prepared to make the economic argument that they deserve this," Alvarez says. "They'd be well-served to offer their employer data to help the employer justify why you are being given preference."
And anytime that data can include a comparison between how productive you would be with versus without a certain accommodation, the stronger your case will be.
But be careful what you wish for
When asking for an extra privilege at work, the principle that "beggars can't be choosers" does apply to a certain extent, our experts say, so be careful what you wish for.
For example, working while standing up is increasingly in vogue, says Alvarez, especially for people with back problems. And while you may be able to make a good case for why you want an adjustable desk that allows you to stand, that's not necessarily what you'll get.
"It's possible that they determine an employee needs a different height but not an adjustable height, and it could mean a desk raised on cinderblocks," Alvarez says. "It may not be the most attractive solution, but it's a solution."
For that reason, employees making any request better be serious about why they need it, he says, because the company may have a responsibility to address the problem, but not to just grant the exact request.
Get in on the ground floor
As anyone who's worked with people knows, there's a lot of gossiping that goes on in the typical office, and when one person gets an ergonomic footrest for their desk, then others may try to get in on the action as well. That can cause problems when one footrest becomes 50, so a good way to increase your chances at getting what you want is to be the first, or one of the first, to make the request.
"Employers are inclined to say yes to the first few requests hoping it won't be a big deal, but then change their policy halfway through," Alvarez says. "They often get burned by the 'me too' phenomenon."
Get a promotion
Still, there are cases when the "me too" phenomenon makes sense in an office.
"There's always a concern of the perception of favoritism that companies have to consider," Alvarez explains. "Employers may have to defend themselves if they start giving comforts that they can't give to everyone."
One way they address the problem, he says, is by making a certain accommodation available to everyone at the same level rather than everyone in the office. That means that employees are much more likely to have their requests approved if what they are asking for was given to a same-level counterpart, not just someone else in the office down the hall.
Make it temporary
There is one strategy that may allow employees to use semantics to increase their chances of getting a new piece of gear at their desks. Mandelman says that sometimes a request for a special accommodation will be much easier for an employer to agree to if it is presented as a temporary request, one that in the future can be passed to another employee who might make a similar request.
"An employer may be able to meet a request on a temporary or other limited basis, but not be able to manage that request on a permanent basis," Mandelman says.
What's more, if a boss can refuse other requests by explaining that yours is only temporary, he or she may be more inclined to approve it.
Know your company
Managing workplace morale is tricky no matter how big a company is, so to take the guesswork out of which accommodations to approve and which to deny, employers might implement a blanket policy for special requests.
Anyone planning to ask for a special request would be well-served to know that policy ahead of time. For example, if a company has decided to approve only requests that come with medical documentation, a rejected employee will be hard-pressed to make a second attempt to get an item, this time for documented medical reasons that weren't there to begin with.
"Some companies realize it's a case of 'no good deed goes unpunished,' and may decide it's easier to be uniform in terms of the comforts they provide," Alvarez says. "More often than not, employers of any size have a bias toward that orientation. It's almost necessary to blunt claims of discrimination and favoritism in a work environment."
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