Ask HR: Can Employers Take Disciplinary Action Against Employees with Bipolar Disorder?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP June 9, 2023

​SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. 

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


An employee informed us that she has bipolar disorder. Recently, she was involved in a verbal confrontation with one of our clients in the drug rehab health program where she works. She has stated that her behavior is due to needing to adjust her medication. Given her medical condition, what steps can we take to ensure that any disciplinary actions we take are legal and fair to all parties involved? —Vicki

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: It is not easy to address an employee's previously undisclosed condition, but with due diligence, you can navigate the process while preserving her rights as an employee. If you are an employer with 15 or more employees, you are likely covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, you must engage in an interactive process to assess whether her circumstance rises to the level of a disability. If it does, you are required to provide reasonable accommodation unless it causes undue hardship. Bipolar disorder happens to be considered a qualifying disability under the ADA, but you should still engage in the process so you have confirmation. 

There is no defined time frame for employees to make disclosures about a disability. Even if she didn't disclose a disability previously and only shared that her medication is impacting her behavior now, it is enough information for you to begin the interactive process.

It is a common misconception that an employer cannot address performance or behavior-related concerns if an employee qualifies for ADA protections. That is simply not true. An employer can still hold an employee accountable for their actions and performance. After hearing that a disability is a reason for inappropriate conduct, you can still discipline an employee, but you are also obligated to begin the interactive process to determine how you can best assist her with preventing a repeat of this conduct.

You can also inform her about your company's accommodation policy and process. If the disability is not apparent, the ADA allows employers to request documentation from a medical care provider to support whether an employee has a disability, as well as the possible accommodations to put in place for the employee.

With instances of workplace violence on the rise, many companies have instituted zero tolerance policies with respect to aggressive, violent or threatening workplace behavior. If your company happens to have such a policy in place, you could very well have grounds to terminate the employee notwithstanding her ADA-covered disability. However, this type of situation is very fact-specific and should be discussed with legal counsel first.

Should you choose to proceed with disciplinary action for an employee's misconduct leading to potential termination, it is always a good practice to consult legal counsel.

I hope you find a solution that works best for your workplace.

I haven't been able to find work in my field and have only worked part-time jobs in the last few months. I have been out of touch with my former colleagues and industry friends. How can I best reconnect with my contacts and leverage my network? —Britt

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry about your recent struggles. Being out of work is challenging, and it may seem even more difficult to seek help. One of the best things I have done in my career is reach out to former co-workers and friends to lend and receive support.

Feel free to contact former co-workers and friends even if you haven't spoken with them recently. Here are a few steps you can take to leverage these vital relationships in your job search:

  • Have a plan. Figure out which specific opportunities you are seeking in your career field.
  • Focus on rebuilding relationships first. Networking is more than asking for a favor. If possible, reconnect with someone over a cup of coffee, chat over the phone, or connect on social media.
  • Consider joining a professional association to expand your network.
  • Share your goals with your network and ask for their advice, not just a job. They may be able to recommend training or conferences to help you expand your skill set and meet even more people in your field.
  • If you would like to use someone as a reference, ask for their permission first.
  • Stay connected. Even after you land a new job, stay in touch. Networking is not just about finding jobs; it is about relationships. And who knows? Maybe one day you can return the favor!

Engaging with your network of associates and friends helps you broaden your perspective and see opportunities you might otherwise miss. You've invested time and energy in cultivating these relationships. Not only is it perfectly acceptable to seek assistance, but it's also smart. The people you've worked with know what you are capable of and can offer insights you might have overlooked.

I hope you find the best opportunity for the next chapter in your career. 



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