Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Don't Sue Me Stuff: Medical/Disbility

When you become a manager, it isn't terribly often that someone sits down and carefully explains all the liability and responsibility you've accepted in so doing. A lot of the time they assume you just know (especially if you've managed people before).

This series of articles isn't about everything that could possibly happen, and it's not legal advice in ANY way. It's just sort of a heads up about what you may have gotten yourself into.

Today's Topic: Medical/Disability

You have an employee who develops a medical condition and asks for an accommodation. What do you do? What does that mean? What happens if their medical condition reduces their productive output to a point that causes problems for your team? What if they do have a medical disability but are also just not a good fit for whatever reason? What if, during an interview, an employee of yours asks about a medical condition that seems apparent? What if someone gets injured at work or sustains a long term injury from doing their work?

Answering each of these questions individually would probably require a few months worth of blog posts, so here are some basic pieces of information, and suggestions (liberally) to contact your local HR to discuss things.

An employee should document a medical issue when it comes up if they feel it will affect their work. Someone is out sick, they send an email or call and let people know they are sick. An employee breaks his or her arm, and they need to talk to you and HR and bring in a doctor's note (just to make nice with everyone) and then create a plan for managing their altered productive output until they are on the mend.

This plan, and any additional things you implement to make it easier for this person to do his or her job, is generally considered "reasonable accommodation" which is required under the law when dealing with a medical issue or a disability so that you are not discriminating against an employee for having a medical condition or disability (temporary or permanent in nature). For the technical definition of "reasonable accommodation" check with your Human Resources department--they are the experts here. Basically in most states, the law says you have to provide reasonable accommodation to employees to avoid discriminating against them for medical or disability issues. Note the word "reasonable."

An employee diagnosed with cancer, mental disorders, or any other long term illnesses that have similar affects on work productivity need to have similar reasonable accommodations made. However, with long term issues, you need to decide if you need additional head count to manage the workload for the position, and, under some circumstances, can replace that person temporarily with another work (for example, a cancer patient is likely to take medical leave when going through treatment, and you want someone who can still do the job while he/she is gone).

In some cases, the employee's condition is such that they cannot fulfill their work duties anymore, even with reasonable accommodation. So even working out a strategy for reduced duties wouldn't be helpful. At that point, you need to talk to HR about your options and have them work out a solution with the employee; the state and federal systems look harshly on people who penalize the disabled for being disabled, but there are laws in place for folks who can just no longer do the work they were hired for, and will never be able to resume it, even with reasonable accommodation. Thus, a person with no arms can try to apply to a position where restocking large boxes is the main job requirement, but if that person isn't hired, it is unlikely he or she will be able to sue the company because there is no way there's a reasonable accommodation for that disability given the requirements of the job description.

Injuries that happen on the work site--such as an employee or co-worker cutting open his or her hand with the bagel slicer--should be reported immediately to HR (after, of course, that person is out of immediate danger). As a manager, you are expected to keep the work location secure and safe to the best of your ability, but otherwise you're typically not going to have to do much about accidents on site other than report them and get people to safety. If you have specific jobs--such as putting away equipment that could be tripped over or otherwise hurt employees--you should keep records about your regular and routine performance of those duties. However, few people are required to judge the safety of a bagel slicer which is a tool provided for the use of employees as a perk to make cutting bagels easier (and no one is marched in daily and forced to use the item as part of their jobs).

Long term issues that can occur on site, such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, for example, are pretty similar to overall accidents in that you report as soon as you learn of the issue, and you respond immediately to any requests in the workspace to accommodate/relieve the problem. In this specific case it means talking to HR about getting in someone to review the workspace to prevent worsening/continuing on the condition, and getting HR involved with the person suffering and any claims he or she might make. Its best--unless otherwise directed by your company and/or lawyer--to get out of the way on the issue of long term or short term injuries; the more you are involved, the more people can extend your responsibility, the more likely you can be considered liable. You don't want to be considered liable if that employee chooses to sue the company, because that means they can sue you, too, either as an agent of the company or individually ("You should have warned people about the bloodthirsty nature of that Bagel Slicer!").

When interviewing folks with disabilities, you are going to treat them just like you would if you were interviewing someone without disabilities. Which is to say, the hard questions--like do they need reasonable accommodation--should only be asked by you in the interview (or, preferably your HR person) and your team who may also be interviewing will be told to say nothing and ask nothing about the medical condition. The ONLY thing you can usually ask in an interview is "Are there any medical conditions for which you require accommodation in the workplace?"

An employee who has violated this will need to be talked to in private and pulled, for the time being, from future interview loops. HR needs to be notified immediately, and they should enact any additional communication with the interviewee on the topic; in that way they can reduce liability and hopefully put any concerns of the interviewee at rest.

If you have hired someone with a disability, or they develop one during the course of their time in your employee, and they have performance problems, you treat them like any other employee. Please review my blog on Getting Improvement Without Going Full HR on their Butts. I would add that you might want to start sending communications to HR for everything you two discuss BEFORE turning things over to HR, just in case the disability is part of the equation (or the employee in question thinks it might be).

As noted before, this is NOT legal advice. For that, see a lawyer or your local human resources department (or both). These are just some things to consider when jumping into the managerial hot seat.

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