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It’s sad but true: Disabled people are sometimes the butt of jokes at work. Whether the disability is obvious or the disabled employee lets co-workers know about his condition, you can expect somebody to say something inappropriate.

Of course, some comments might be good-natured teasing.

That doesn’t mean you should tolerate it. Well-intentioned or not, joking about disabilities can easily result in a harassment lawsuit. Never ignore it.

Your best approach: Educate all employees on how to interact with disabled co-workers, customers and others. Explain that teasing can be painful and that it has no place in the workplace.

Recent case: Donald McPhail had a string of terrible medical misfortune. First, he had two operations on his feet. Afterward, he had to move slowly at work. Then he was diagnosed with cancer, but came to work even when his treatments made him feel ill. He rarely missed a day. Finally, he was diagnosed with heart disease.

After a while, his co-workers started joking about McPhail’s many medical problems. He sued for harassment.

Later, some of the teasers testified that they had done so only to make McPhail feel better. They also said McPhail had joined in the joking. Meanwhile, management claimed that when it found out about the teasing, it told co-workers to stop the bantering.

Still, the court ordered a trial. It said McPhail would have to show that he was subject to unwanted harassment based on his disability, that the harassment affected his ability to work and that his employer knew about the harassment but didn’t take effective action to end it. (McPhail v. ES3, No. 1:08-CV-0029, MD PA, 2010)

Final note: Prevention is better than any cure. Cover disability harassment—including jokes and ribbing—in your harassment training.

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