An employee who’s questioned about fighting with co-workers, sudden tardiness or a dip in performance may explain, “I’ve changed medications. Even an assertion this simple should be treated as a notice from the worker that a reasonable accommodation might be needed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A worker doesn’t have to use any particular words to request an ADA accommodation. The key is that the employee has notified the manager that a disability may affect his or her ability to do the job.
If an employee says he or she has changed medications to explain a fight in the workplace, the employer shouldn’t overlook the misconduct, because the employee’s behavior may threaten others.
In general, employers don’t have to tolerate bad behavior that arises because of a health issue requiring medication. If an employer decides to take action such as issuing a warning or a performance-improvement plan or even terminating the employee, the employer can probably proceed before an employee makes an accommodation request, without risk of liability. But, it’s often very challenging and frustrating for an employer to address performance issues after an employee has come forward with an ADA request. Failure to follow the interactive process between the employer and the employee for identifying a reasonable accommodation raises risk for the business.
All managers should be trained on how to identify and respond to accommodation requests, as well as the importance of documenting such requests and promptly forwarding them to human resources. The manager should not ask prying questions.
For example, a supervisor should not ask an employee about his or her diagnosis or underlying condition, nor require specific details about any medication the employee is taking.
The employee who announces he or she has switched medications has conveyed private medical information. Even if the employee doesn’t have a disability, the worker may later claim that the employer perceived him as having an ADA disability if there is an adverse action after this announcement. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against people regarded as having a disability. The ADA also requires employers to keep medical information confidential.
The manager should ask how he or she can help the employee. If there isn’t a simple fix, the manager should refer the employee to HR so that HR can identify an accommodation.
Referring accommodation requests to HR will serve the twin purposes of protecting the employee’s privacy and shielding the manager from being accused of using the employee’s confidential medical information as a basis for discrimination.
Possible accommodations for a person with a disability who has changed medications include:
a) ADA leave to give the employee time to adjust to the medication, as long as it doesn’t pose an undue hardship on the employer. The employee also may be entitled to time off, either intermittently or on a continuous basis under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
b) A reduced work schedule.
c) Letting the employee work remotely while adjusting to the new medication, as long as that does not create an undue burden on the employer.
d) A change in work shifts, such as when a worker has problems with depression in the morning but not the afternoon.
e) Other modifications to the worker’s schedule, including starting earlier or later, or taking breaks during the workday.
Managers should not shy away from holding employees—even those with accommodations—to regular performance standards. But they should cooperate with HR to identify a reasonable accommodation.