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Workplace disclosure of disabilities

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HR PolicyPro

The tragedy of the ill-fated Germanwings flight in March, and speculation about the reasons why the co-pilot may have intentionally crashed the airplane, has raised troubling issues for employers. Amid speculation that the co-pilot may have been depressed and suicidal, and may even have obtained a doctor’s note to not report for work on the fated day, many in the media and around the water cooler have wondered, “How did the employer not know?”

While much energy and resources have been expended on educating employers on the duty to accommodate employees with disabilities, there is no duty upon employees to divulge a disability, unless they are requesting an accommodation on the basis of the disability. Indeed, many people may have invisible disabilities which do not affect the ability to do the job; it is understandable that they may not wish to disclose a disability for privacy reasons and in fear that they may suffer discrimination on that basis.

Under this system, however, the determination of whether the disability affects the ability to do the job lies solely with the employee and doesn’t consider that the employee may not be best positioned to determine his or her safety in the broader workplace environment, nor does it enable the employer to ensure it has fulfilled any obligations it has under any other legislation.

Take, for example, an employee who is partially-sighted, but legally blind, who does not wish to disclose the fact that he or she is legally blind because he or she can adequately perform the essential duties of the job. Although there may never be an issue with work performance, without knowing of the disability, the employer will not know to provide written communications regarding company policy, health and safety, or otherwise in an alternative or oral format, nor will the employer be in a position to assess how the broader workplace may create hazards which may only affect an employee with such a specific disability. One can imagine the fallout if an accident occurred in the workplace which could have been prevented with disclosure and accommodation.

I am not advocating that employees be obligated to disclose disabilities except in cases where accommodation is being requested, however, all employers can take steps through their policies and behaviour to ensure that employees are comfortable and confident that such a disclosure can be made in a supportive environment without repercussion.

For more discussion of disability in the workplace refer to the topic E5.04 – Workplace Accommodation on the Basis of Disability in the Human Resources Policy Pro published by First Reference.

Michele Glassford

VP and Managing Editor at DRH and Lawyer at MacKinnon Law Associates
Michele Glassford, is a lawyer, researcher and policy analyst with a background in employment and labour law.In addition to a part-time law practice in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Michele has worked in the field of labour adjustment for the Health Sector Training and Adjustment Program and has been a Researcher for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Michele also holds the position of VP and Managing Editor at D.R. Hancocks & Associates Inc., author of the Human Resources PolicyPros. Read more
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3 thoughts on “Workplace disclosure of disabilities
  • Once employers are aware of employee needs (disabilities and health issues), they must take steps to meet the duty to accommodate. The duty to accommodate a disability exists for needs that are known. Organizations and persons responsible for accommodation are not, as a rule, expected to accommodate disabilities they are unaware of. A legal quagmire to know employees disabilities ahead of a need for accommodation.

  • Tanya says:

    We have new employees fill out a first aid information form (asking emergency contact info, Dr/Dentist #/s, allergy/medication/health condition info, etc.). This goes straight to the first aid room file so that it can be passed on to paramedics if ever needed. It is the employee’s discretion if he/she chooses to fill out the entire form or leave it blank. However, we have had times when failing to fill the form out worked against the favour of the employee.

    One employee failed to list that she had food allergies (which she was well aware of). As a result, no allergy information was posted before a store event, and food was brought in that she had a severe reaction to. She did not ask ingredients of the food before eating it, either. Had it been known, we would have requested that the baker leave the specific allergens out of the food. The employee was quite upset about it, but also stated that she did not fill out the form ‘because it is nobody’s business’ what her health conditions are.

    Another employee failed to write that he has asthma and dust allergies. He began to increasingly refuse work that might ‘stir up dust’, such as sweeping or moving product on shelves. At the point of his termination, he refused almost all work during 8 hour shifts if he possibly could, and would not go to the doctor for a note when requested. He refused regardless of the accommodations we did provide (masks, gloves, vacuums instead of brooms…) He was well aware of the job duties required of him from the job ad that was posted, as well as information given at the interview and orientation processes. Had he discussed his health issues during the interview process he would have been told that it was not a job suited to him. Had he cooperated with the accommodations we were offering him, or had he gone to the doctor and obtained a note, we would have tried placing him into a different position when one became available. However, his overall uncooperation became an issue of insubordination and he was terminated.

    Another employee had a serious heart condition and was awaiting surgery. He could not lift anymore than a coffee cup, let alone operate heavy machinery that he was hired for. He did not indicate this condition during the hiring or orientation stage verbally or on paper. He refused almost all work that he was given (before disclosing his medical condition). He was terminated and disputed it. It was found that failing to disclose such information (that could have really jeopardized his health, and potentially the safety of others working around him) was just the same as lying on his application, and we were not required to hire him back.

    I do not see anything wrong with an employee disclosing health information, so long as it is not used against them by the employer. In many cases, it will benefit them if they ever need accommodations.