Naomi Osaka said she suffers from depression and, as such, she didn’t want to participate in the mandatory press conferences.
The French Open and all Grand slam officials held strong and insisted, fining Osaka for not participating. Osaka said no more, and withdrew from the competition.
What can American business leaders learn from this? Well, let’s pretend that Osaka is your employee. Could you require her to participate or fire her? (Businesses don’t fine employees, as a general rule.)
The answer should be no. But, the real answer is maybe. Here’s why?
What would the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require?
The ADA requires that you make a reasonable accommodation for an employee whose disability impacts their life. Depression can qualify, and let’s assume, in Osaka’s case, that it does.
Are interviews a core function?
So, then the next question is, are the interviews a core function of the tennis player job? If the answer is no, then you have to accommodate Osaka and let her skip the interviews. Think of it this way: If part of a receptionist’s job is to accept packages, and once a month, the business gets a delivery of copy paper that weighs 50 pounds a box. Lifting that box is not a core function of her job. If, on the other hand, her job was in the warehouse and she needed to move 200 50 pound boxes every day, then that would be a core function.
I would argue that tennis playing is the core function and interviews are not, but plenty who see it otherwise. The officials see this interaction with the press as a key part of the job–after all, there’s no money without fans. Without money, there’s no tournament. Without the tournament, there’s no need for anyone to play tennis professionally.
If interviews are a core function of the job, you can certainly require Osaka to do the interview, leading us to the next part of the ADA.
Under ADA, you have to perform all core functions of the job with or without an accommodation. That accommodation needs to be reasonable, and you go through what is called the “interactive process” to get to an accommodation if possible. This is a back and forth process until you come to a reasonable decision.
What is reasonable varies from job to job and company to company. For instance, giving an accountant the ability to work from home to handle his migraines is probably reasonable. The same accommodation would not be reasonable for a bartender.
So, if you are Osaka’s boss and say being in these press conferences is a core function of the job, is there a reasonable accommodation? Here are some ideas that I would put forth:
- Presenting Osaka with written questions that she can write answers to.
- Allowing her to do 1:1 interviews rather than a press conference.
- Gathering the questions from reporters and then allowing Osaka to answer them on her own time, via video.
- Appointing a spokesperson to answer the questions
Would the French Open officials find any of these reasonable? Would Osaka? I’m not sure. But, there are definitely opportunities to come to a reasonable decision that meets everyone’s needs.
Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate job descriptions.
Sometimes, when an employee questions a core function and asks for an accommodation or a release from that function, you should ask yourself why do we do it that way? Surely there are plenty of athletes who love the spotlight and are happy to do the interviews. You also don’t want to eliminate highly skilled athletes–or employees–who cannot do this side function. To put it clearly, I’m more than happy to give anyone an interview, but no one wants to pay me to play tennis. Clearly, tennis is the more important skill for the French Open.
Job descriptions change over time. Expectations change over time. It’s okay to sit down and write new ones. It’s okay to say, “Hey, we thought this was a core function, but it turns out, it’s not as important as we thought.”
I think the French Open should have accommodated Oska, and if she were your employee in the US, I would hope you’d accommodate her as well. And, I think the ADA would require it.