Under the ADA, certain basic rights are protected. One is your right to keep your job if you are otherwise qualified. In other words, you can't lose your job just because your disability makes life inconvenient for your boss. However, your boss is also protected.
By law (in fact, by the same law), an employer cannot be made to make accommodations that would be too expensive, for example. (This is known as “undue hardship.”) That way, your boss doesn't face the possibility of going bankrupt (and therefore, out of business) spending the money to build you your own private bathroom and kitchenette. That's where “reasonable accommodation” come in.
What this term means is that, assuming that you meet the ADA criteria for disability, reasonable accommodation would enable you to perform the job while allowing for the limitations created by your OCD. Here are a few examples:
Your start time is 9 A.M., but, because of your checking behaviors, you seldom arrive at your place of work before 9:30. Depending on the type of job, you and your boss might decide that 9:30 becomes your new start time, and you make up the lost half hour at the end of the day. (However, once you've agreed to the new schedule, you must stick to it. If you arrive after 9:30, under this arrangement, you would be considered late and could be subject to disciplinary action, just like any other employee.)
If you are required to fly to the company's annual meeting and your anxiety prevents you from getting on a plane, reasonable accommodation might consist of teleconferencing or traveling to the event by car or by train. If you are a salesperson and are afraid to fly, you might have your territory switched with that of another sales rep, so that you could drive to your clients.
If you work at the kind of job that requires you to shake hands with customers or clients, your boss might agree to a friendly Howie Mandel-style “knuckle-knock” instead so that you don't appear inhospitable. (The gesture might even catch on among fellow employees, and ultimately distinguish your company from others like it!)
Many other countries have laws similar to the ADA. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 covers mental and physical disabilities in the workplace. That act, too, requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments.”
Requesting Reasonable Accommodation
Requesting reasonable accommodation can be a delicate matter. You may not want to announce, the moment you're hired, that you have OCD and have special needs that must be met. To be sure, we understand.
However, if you need accommodation and don't request it, in all probability, you won't be able to make a case against your former employer or defend against your job termination if it should come to that. (OCD is a “hidden disability.” That is, your employer might not know you had it unless you told him, so he couldn't be blamed for firing you for constant lateness, say, if he didn't know the reason for it.)
So the time to request reasonable accommodation is before you lose your job because your symptoms have made it impossible for you to do your work acceptably. Please note: This does not mean you should discuss it before you receive a job offer.
In a few specific circumstances, an employer might be exempt from ADA regulations. The EEOC has a lot of information available for both employees (and would-be employees) and employers. Search EEOC. gov for information about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and for other employment-related information.
We know: you may not like this idea. Many people who have OCD, knowing the stereotypes and lack of knowledge that surround it, try to keep their behaviors hidden. So we suggest that you see how things go for a bit. If you should start to run into problems — for example, your boss reprimands you for refusing to accept a client's outstretched hand, you're continually late for work — this would be the time to say, “I want to do a good job, but I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and can't shake hands with strangers. Can we work out something else?”
Remember, too, that accommodation, although it may make you stand out in a different way than you would hope, might also make it possible for you to do your job more effectively. In other words, it can be good for both you and your employer.
If Reasonable Accommodation Cannot Be Found
A would-be employer is under no obligation to hire you, so if you mention your OCD before you're offered the job, and the employer doesn't think she'll be able to accommodate you, she can simply decide you're not qualified for the position, and choose another candidate. If you reveal it once you're hired, your employer will have to try to make reasonable accommodation.
However, suppose that's just not possible? Say you are afraid to drive to work and your boss contends that the job cannot be done adequately from home?
While not specifically disallowed by law, it would be extremely hard for any employer to have a no-OCD hiring policy because it would be his responsibility to prove that it would be impossible for virtually anyone with any kind or degree of OCD to do the job. (The Army is one exception.)
In that case, your employer would be expected to offer you a different job at the same level (that is, not a promotion, just something different). She would not be obligated or expected, however, to fire someone else in order to do so, or to create a new position for you.
Sad to say, there may not be a solution. If a different position is not an option, and no other resolution can be found, it could be decided that you are no longer qualified to perform your job. You don't have to get fired, however. You could be laid off due to disability. Again, we hope it doesn't come to that. We hope that you and your employer will try to work together, in case that elusive solution can be found. If you do think you've been discriminated against, or prejudged, because you have OCD, you may have grounds for a discrimination case or complaint.
If You Can't Work
In relatively rare cases, OC symptoms might become so severe that it is no longer really possible to work. If you weren't diagnosed prior to that point, or if treatment has failed (or if, perhaps, you have not been able to begin treatment), you might find yourself limited in the amount and type of work you can do. As you probably know, treatment is your best option.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is part of the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities and the United States Department of Labor. The JAN information line is: 1-800-526-7234. (In West Virginia, call 1-800-526-4698.)
You might be a good candidate for an in-patient OCD treatment program. We hope you will investigate this possibility. Such programs are often the best courses of action for people whose symptoms are advanced. You will have a safe, supportive place in which to get better and begin your transition back into the world of employment and everything else.
In the meantime, we urge you to get the support you need — from online groups, therapy, your family, and any other healthful source — and to work on stopping any behaviors you may have that are causing you obvious harm. We also urge you to beware of work-at-home “opportunities.” If depression is a problem, get in touch with your mental health provider, or emergency services.