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What should we do if we learn about an employee's medical condition from someone else?

In a perfect world, a worker with a disability or chronic illness comes forward, provides certification, then asks for and is granted reasonable accommodation. The paperwork is pristine, and the employee is thriving. Your reality might be a bit more challenging.

A concerned co-worker wants you to know that Omar is seeing a cardiologist and seemed short of breath the other day. Or a manager tells you she has heard that one of her direct reports might need to take time off for a medical issue and that she wants to ask the employee if it's true. These situations could be covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So what should you do?

Remember that the ADA allows an employer to approach an employee with disability-related questions when such an inquiry is job-related and consistent with business necessity. You must have a reasonable belief either that the employee can't perform the essential functions of the job because of a medical condition or that he poses a direct threat to himself or others due to his health status.

Ask the employee's supervisor about the individual's performance and whether they know of any issues that could be affecting it. If there are no complaints and the employee hasn't given any indication of a medical issue or a need for time off, then take no further action.

If performance has declined, it may be time for the manager to discuss with the employee how to improve. If the employee divulges a medical issue, the interactive accommodation process should begin, which is usually handled by HR. If not, the situation should be treated the same way as any other performance issue.

Sometimes it is appropriate to remind employees of their benefits and rights. If Dave casually tells his manager he's depressed or thinking about counseling, either the manager or HR can remind him of the company's employee assistance program or health insurance benefits and his right to time off (either under leave laws or as an ADA accommodation). What's not OK is to question employees about medical issues where no job-related reason exists.


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