In safety-conscious environments—such as in the medical and food industries—employees who become ill often face questions about their health from co-workers and associates. That’s only natural.
But sometimes, inquiries about an employee’s illness are simply off-limits. It’s up to HR or other managers to decide whether or when an employee’s condition poses a risk to himself, his co-workers or customers. Simply put, an employer can’t force an employee to discuss health problems with anyone who doesn’t have a strict need to know.
Recent case: When Blossom South hired Anthony Desano as its food services director, he revealed to his supervisor that he was recovering from cancer. He wanted the information kept confidential.
About six months into the job, Desano felt ill and told his boss he had to go see a doctor. The physician diagnosed a sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics. The doctor filled out an serious health condition certification, explaining that Desano would be off work for three days.
Apparently, the rumors were rampant. The company told Desano to report back to work with the form and ordered him to a team meeting with his staff and supervisors. There, the company told him to explain his doctor’s note and assure his staff that he was not contagious.
Desano sued, alleging that by making him reveal confidential medical information, his employer violated the ADA. The judge hearing the case agreed. When the company forced Desano to reveal his condition, he lost the confidentiality the ADA allows employees. (Desano v. Blossom South, No. 07-CV-6481, WD NY, 2008)
Final note: The ADA allows employees to remain silent about disabilities, and forbids employers from asking whether an employee has a disability. Employees who don’t want accommodations are entitled to privacy. Plus, if an employee does tell his supervisor that he has a disability and needs an accommodation, the company must keep the information confidential.
What should a supervisor do if co-workers ask questions about another employee, or question perceived special privileges like extra breaks that may be an accommodation? The best policy is to explain that this simply is none of the co-workers’ business.
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