Don’t assume—It’s up to employee to raise disability issues

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Performance Reviews

Do you suspect an employee may have a mental or psychological disability that may need accommodation—even though he hasn’t mentioned it? Tread carefully. If you assume the employee is disabled and he’s not, he’ll be able to sue you for regarding him as disabled.

Here’s the best way to handle the matter: Unless the employee raises the issue, assume any performance problems have nothing to do with a disability. Treat him as you would anyone else. If, during a performance evaluation, he says he’s having trouble meeting expectations because of a medical or psychological condition, then you should begin an interactive accommodation process.

It pays to be proactive—train managers before they face such situations not to assume disability. It could look bad to a jury if e-mails and internal memos mention that someone thinks the employee may be disabled, and then the company denies it knew.

Recent case: While Daniel Drozdowski was working for a car dealership, his father died. Then the dealership fired him for attendance problems. Drozdowski claimed the termination was discrimination against him—that his fragile emotional state had caused the dismissal. A jury apparently disagreed and believed managers, who testified that they never suspected Drozdowski was seriously depressed after his father’s death.

Drozdowski asked the court to ignore the jury’s conclusions, arguing that he had indeed told managers he was having mental problems. Apparently the jury hadn’t believed him, and the court refused to second-guess the jury. (Drozdowski v. Northland Lincoln Mercury, No. 04-756, WD PA, 2007)

Final note: If there had been internal memos or other documents showing that management suspected mental problems, then the jury might have believed Drozdowski.

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