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The dangers of playing doctor with employee ailments

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Issue: Supervisors must be responsive to employees' disabilities, but they shouldn't overaccommodate them.

Risk: If supervisors voice their own assumptions about the disabilities' impact, they could spark an ADA lawsuit.

Action: Remind managers not to generalize about a person's condition and its possible impact on his or her performance.

 Supervisor Sam is a cancer survivor, and one of his employees, Ed, was diagnosed with cancer, too. When Ed returned to work after treatment, supervisor Sam, saying he knows the toll that cancer treatment can take on the body, moves Ed to a less-stressful, lower-paying job. Ed quickly files an ADA lawsuit and wins.

What went wrong? It's true that employers must go through an "interactive process" with disabled employees to try to arrive at accommodations that would allow the person to work. But supervisors shouldn't stick their noses too deeply into employees' underlying health problems. Nor should supervisors make assumptions about the person's condition and its potential impact on their performance.

Making such assumptions and remarks could tip the scales in their favor if they're later fired or demoted and decide to sue you under the ADA.

Simply concern yourself with whether employees can perform the essential job functions with or without an accommodation. Rely on objective criteria, such as meeting performance goals and other measurable criteria, when reviewing, judging or documenting performance. Don't try to "play doctor" and second-guess the employee's doctor.

Case in point: A hospital supervisor smelled alcohol on an employee's breath, so she referred him to the EAP. She also called the employee's wife, telling her that alcoholism was "an incurable disease." When unrelated problems cropped up at the hospital, the supervisor assumed the employee caused them, so she fired him.

The employee filed an ADA suit and won a $1.1 million judgment. While the supervisor's EAP referral was appropriate, her personal intrusion and hasty judgments were not. (Moorer v. Baptist Memorial Health Care System, No. 03-5855/5965, 6th Cir., 2005)

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