It’s OK to punish drunk worker for misconduct, but not for his disability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employee Benefits Program,Human Resources

Disabled employees sometimes think they can use their medical conditions to get away with misbehavior. That’s simply not true.

Employers can and should punish behavior that is disruptive, wrong or breaks company rules, even if that behavior may be tangentially related to a disability of some sort.

Recent case: Michael Cunningham misbehaved at his company’s holiday party. Witnesses testified that he poured beer down a co-worker’s dress and argued loudly with a cab driver.

Days later, Cunningham discussed the incidents with his boss and sent him an e-mail saying he realized he had a drinking problem and would seek professional help. Cunningham then called the company’s employee assistance program to arrange counseling.

Still, the company fired him. Cunningham sued, alleging disability discrimination. The court tossed out his lawsuit. It reasoned that he was fired for boorish behavior, not because of any disability. (Cunningham v. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, No. 10-1677, 3rd Cir., 2010)

Final note: Alcoholism is a disability under the ADA, but that doesn’t mean alcoholic employees can come to work under the influence or blame other work problems on the disease. Employers that punish drunken behavior won’t lose an ADA lawsuit.

It’s a good idea to encourage substance-abuse treatment. But you should reinforce the idea that while treatment is protected, you won’t tolerate misbehavior.

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