In general, an employer, manager, supervisor or HR professional discussing an employee’s medical condition with other employees is just plain inappropriate. Employees who have disclosed their medical information with the goal of being accommodated or to access disability benefits have the right to confidentiality—any medical information they share with their employer should be kept private. Unless of course, they have given their employer permission to tell someone, or a person has a need to know the information.
Many times, I have seen employers innocently talk to others about someone’s medical condition out of compassion or care or concern. However, some of these discussions may be construed as discrimination or harassment. For example, it is probably discriminatory to ask an employee, who is not a manager or supervisor, if they feel an ill employee is stressed, unable to perform to expectation, or unable to do their job, and then to act on that employee’s response to reassign the ill employee’s tasks or make other employment-related decisions, without discussing it with the ill employee first.
Any decisions you make about employees, such as hiring, firing, scheduling, evaluating, placing restrictions on duties or schedules or assigning work tasks, should not be made because of a person’s disability. You also may not harass an employee for any of these reasons.
Also, employees having a “water cooler” type of discussion about an employee’s illness, innocently or not, is also considered inappropriate. What is said between them may harm the disabled employee, or perceptions taken from such a discussion may also be construed as discrimination or harassment.
The law requires you to keep an employee’s medical information private and confidential, unless a more senior manager or HR professional needs to know about it. Only employees whose jobs require knowledge of certain medical conditions should have access to this information. This means that you should not discuss any employee’s medical information with co-workers. The law also places strict limits on when you can ask an employee about his or her medical condition.
If the employer has doubts in regard to a disabled employee’s ability to continue his or her normal duties, or is concerned about the employee’s health and productivity, the employer should discuss these issues directly with the employee and their manager/supervisor, not with just any other employee.
It is the employee’s right not to disclose his or her illness. It is a personal decision of the individual whether they disclose, or discuss aspects of their illness. It is good practice to consult initially with the person with the disability to determine their preferred way of talking to his or her co-worker about their disability and how they would like to be supported in the workplace.
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor