When employees suffer health problems that affect their work and could trigger ADA protection, you should start the interactive process and explore possible accommodations. But make sure your supervisors know not to stick their noses too far into the person's underlying health problem.
Making personal observations and remarks about employees' health problems could tip the scales in their favor if they're later fired and sue you for violating the ADA. Supervisors should simply concern themselves with whether the employee can perform the essential job functions with or without accommodation. Don't assume or generalize about a person's condition and its possible impact on his or her performance.
Recent case: Hospital supervisor Cathy Hill thought one of her employees smelled of alcohol, so she referred him to the company's EAP. When the employee sought treatment, Hill contacted the employee's wife, telling her that "alcoholism is an incurable disease, and your husband will never be cured."
When unrelated deficiencies cropped up at the hospital, Hill automatically assumed the employee's condition had something to do with it. So, she fired him. The employee sued, alleging an ADA violation, and won nearly $1.1 million in compensatory damages. A federal appeals court upheld the award.
While Hill's EAP referral was appropriate, the court said her personal intrusion into the process was not. Hill's rationale for the firing was built largely on her own perceptions and assumptions about the employee's ability to do his job in the face of alcoholism. (Moorer v. Baptist Memorial Health Care System, No. 03-5855/5965, 6th Cir., 2005)
Final note: Remind supervisors not to blame medical or psychiatric conditions for job. Rely on objective criteria, such as meeting performance goals, deadlines and other measurable criteria, when reviewing, judging and documenting performance.
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