A workplace of any significant size is bound to be full of individuals who are a little off the beaten path, so to speak. While an employer will need to deal with the quirky dispositions of some workers, on occasion an employee’s behavior will cross over from merely quirky to disturbing.
The first step towards addressing the issue is a fitness for duty exam. These exams, which are typically conducted with licensed medical professionals, evaluate whether an employee is physically or emotionally appropriate for their position. But this is complicated by the fact that disturbing behaviors often are due to psychiatric and emotional conditions, which are covered as disabilities under most state and federal discrimination laws. If an employee has such a disability, an employer may require a fitness for duty exam only if the exam is job-related and part and parcel to a legitimate business necessity. This standard will generally be met if the employer has a reasonable belief that either a) the employee’s condition may prevent the employee from performing the job’s essential functions, or b) the employee poses a direct threat to his or her own safety or the safety of others.
This past week, an Illinois appellate court found for the employer in such a situation where an employee was observed in an office talking to herself and sending cryptic emails to coworkers. The employee, who clearly suffered from an emotional infirmity that would be covered by the ADA, was sent for a fitness for duty examination with a mental health professional. The employee then sued, arguing that the examination was a violation of the ADA.
If confronted with such a situation, employers should immediately engage with an employee for more reasons than just legal. After assessing the situation, including gathering any pertinent documentary information, an employer should weigh the two questions above and err on the side of caution if an evaluation is necessary.
It should also be noted that this analysis is also applicable to physical challenges in positions that include manual labor.
Taking early intervention with respect to a possibly troubled employees can be a proactive step towards preventing workplace violence and improving efficiency.