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Silence talk of employee health info; loose lips sink HR

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources,Office Management,Records Retention

Issue: You know to keep employees' health records confidential and locked away.

Risk: Some HR professionals and supervisors aren't so cautious when it comes to in-house talk of health information.

Action: Use the following court case to remind supervisors about the legal dangers of such gossip.

By now, it's been drummed into your head a million times: Keep medical information separate from employees' personnel file, and keep it locked up tight.

That message may be getting through. But you'll likely have more trouble keeping the rumor mill under lock and key.

That's why it's vital to make sure all supervisors and HR employees realize that simply discussing an employee's medical condition can be just as legally dangerous as copying his medical chart and passing it around.

Case in point: After a Wal-Mart employee received treatment for impotence with a penile implant, word about his surgery leaked to co-workers. That's when the jokes and teasing began. He was even greeted over the store intercom as "Viagra man." When he asked how his surgery became common knowledge, he was told "the girls in personnel" had been talking about his benefits paperwork.

He sued for disability harassment under the ADA, and a jury awarded him $236,000. (Arrieta-Colon v. Wal-Mart, 04-2614, 1st Cir., 2006)


Add accountability to policies


Here's a secondary lesson to learn from this case: Employers should inject more supervisor accountability into their complaint policies.

The best HR policies aren't general, open-ended requests for action. They should place responsibility squarely on employees' shoulders in clear, concrete terms.

For example, if you require supervisors to report harassment complaints to HR, your policy should spell out exactly how and when that should occur. You could require managers to report complaints orally or in writing within two business days. And establish a system for logging complaints.

In this case, Wal-Mart's policy said employees can voice complaints to any supervisor, who was supposed to pass the complaint up the chain. But that policy existed only on paper, the court said, because supervisors ignored the employee's repeated complaints of the verbal taunting.

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