Feel free to punish boorish misconduct, even if employee blames it on disability

Disabled employees sometimes think they can use their medical conditions to get away with misbehavior. That’s 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 worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car until he misbehaved badly at the company’s holiday party. Witnesses testified that Cunningham poured a beer down a co-worker’s dress and got into a loud argument with a cab driver. Afterward, Cunningham discussed the incidents with his boss and then sent an e-mail informing him that he realized he had a drinking problem and would seek professional help.

Cunningham then called the company’s employee assistance program to seek counseling. Meanwhile, the company fired him.

Cunningham sued, alleging disability discrimination.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of Cunningham’s lawsuit. It reasoned that he was fired for poor and 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.