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.