Engaging Co-Workers of an Employee with ADHD


I am a human resources manager and am currently working on accommodations in the workplace for an employee diagnosed with ADHD. I’m working with the employee’s healthcare provider, a job coach, the supervisor, and the employee. Unfortunately the employee’s communication skills and constant errors in work product have distanced the co-workers. The team of co-workers (including the supervisor) are extremely frustrated with the employee, and it is proving difficult to me to engage them in support of this process. The employee has not disclosed to their co-workers, so I’m stumped at how I can provide some training or discussion on encouraging them to gain some empathy and acceptance. Any ideas?


Seeking Ideas


Dear Seeking Ideas:

The usual disclaimer applies here…we may not be accurate about legal issues because we are not attorneys. However, we do know how a large number of employees and supervisors feel about situations like this because we hear from them all the time!

When employees have repeatedly had to deal with the errors of a coworker and have had work life made unpleasant and more difficult because of that person, few will find it easy to feel very much empathy or sympathy. (However, they should be compliant with organizational rules and policies.) The frustration of employees is made worse when they see managers, HR and others going to great lengths to make work life easier and more flexible for the employee who has caused the rest of them so many problems.

If the problems continue, in spite of reasonable accommodations, yet the employee is still retained because of an incorrect belief that they cannot be dismissed, coworkers become discouraged and angry.

What we hear the most about is that many employees have personal problems, medical issues, pain, sadness, lack of education and difficulty fitting in, but since those are not disabilities under the law, no special concern is shown for them. So, as you knew already, that is probably what you’re dealing with here in trying to get employees to accept someone who has not been a valuable addition to the team in the past.

It seems that the one who should be working to deal with the situation is the supervisor, not you. It should not be on your shoulders to make an effective team, it is up to the team leader.

The supervisor is the one who should ensure that employees are courteous and cooperative with the ADHD employee. His or her job is to work with and through others to achieve the work of the organization and to protect the organization from liability. It is also part of his or her job to build the team and keep everyone involved in it.

The person who should be reminding the supervisor about his responsibility is his manager, so you can talk to the manager about it first. If the manager isn’t supportive, HIS manager should be involved. As the HR resource you may have to go even higher to ensure that the disabled employee is given a reasonable chance to succeed.

It seems to me that your main role right now is to work with the ADHD employee to accommodate his workplace needs so he can do acceptable work consistently and continuously. The role of the supervisor, manager and higher levels, is to ensure that all employees–including the non-disabled–feel valued, significant and cared about and that they treat each other professionally, communicate effectively and do their part of the work well.

It is also the role of the managers and supervisor to document and follow through if it appears performance does not improve. If that happens, I would assume the managers then become your main clients and you would work with them to do what is needed.

In the meantime, you will probably find it most beneficial to direct training, informing and encouraging to the manager and the supervisor and help them gain the skills–and the right words–to work with the other employees during this transition time.

You may not be able to disclose the name of the employee’s problem (ADHD), but you can disclose the nature of it, because it is already established. (He doesn’t concentrate well and makes data entries incorrectly. He becomes confused when there is a lot of noise and forgets to do all the steps of a process.)

If you can’t say anything else, perhaps you can say that those matters were brought to your attention and you’ve been asked to help the employee find ways to be more productive.

You can also tell the supervisor that he will be the one who will need to ensure that the other employees stay focused on their work and that they don’t create a liability concern for the company by deliberately acting in ways that prevents the employee from being optimally effective.

The other thing you can encourage from the supervisor is a renewed spirit of a united team. The supervisor has to lead the way in giving the employee a fresh start once accommodations are in place. The supervisor and manager both can model acceptance and encouragement of the employee, while also acknowledging other employees who make an effort to be inclusive. That is something that often does not happen, but it should.

The supervisor sets the tone, so that is where the responsibility should be placed. If he does an effective job of meeting the challenge, you can gain status and support by officially commending him, just as he should do for employees who step up to support a team member who needs extra encouragement.

This approach may not be the one you want to follow. But, I believe the culture of most organizations is such that having an HR resource attempt to intervene about something he or she isn’t ultimately going to have to deal with, is not likely to be successful. Why put yourself through that when the appropriate person is already in place?

One final thought about the appropriateness of using the supervisor: What if, when the current supervisor was interviewed for the supervisory position, a scenario was given to him involving an ADHD person and he was asked, “What do you see as your role in this situation?”

I doubt that he would have been promoted if he would have answered: “I wouldn’t have a role, because I’d be irritated about it along with the employees. I’d just let HR handle it.” So, let him fulfill that role. Then, support and applaud him as he does it. You’ll be helping two people that way! I hope this was helpful to you as you work through this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know the approach you take and how it works out. Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.