Commentary: Compliance regulations that aim to keep employees safe and their information private can have an unfortunate side effect for HR and managers — fear. Often, employers think they aren’t supposed to know the details about an employee’s medical condition and worry that knowing certain details will result in noncompliance.

Given that asking questions is a vital first step for helping an employee with a medical condition at work, how do you start that conversation and stay in compliance? Here are four tips for initiating a discussion to help an employee find a solution:

1. Be proactive and empathetic. It can be very difficult to identify what issue is affecting an employee’s ability to work. Adding to the difficulty, an employee may exhibit physical signs of a condition that isn’t actually physical in nature, such as depression or anxiety. The best approach here is a compassionate and preemptive one. Low productivity or reported changes in behavior are triggers for a simple, friendly conversation that may yield exactly the answers you’re looking for and, ultimately, allow you to help identify a solution for this employee.

Also see: 5 best practices for ADA compliance

2. Avoid asking the wrong questions. Although being direct may seem like an effective approach, hard-hitting questions typically are not permitted under the ADA Amendments Act. The EEOC recommends avoiding the following questions:

  • Have you ever had a disability?
  • How did you become ill or injured?
  • Do you have any sort of medical documentation to prove it?
  • Have you ever had genetic testing done?
  • Are you taking any prescription drugs or medications? Have you in the past?

3. Don’t ask broad questions to obtain information. Asking general questions about the employee’s impairments to elicit information about their condition or medical history isn’t in compliance with ADAAA regulations. An example of that type of question would be, “What impairments do you have?”

Also see: Why employers need ADA-compliant policies

4. Ask the right questions. When your questions aren’t likely to prompt information about a medical condition, they’re typically permitted. Focus on the employee’s general well-being through a question such as, “How are you?” Asking a tired employee if they feel OK, or inquiring if a sneezing employee has allergies or a cold are other great examples. You can even ask how an employee is doing following the death of a loved one or a divorce. Again, it goes back to tip No. 1 – be empathetic. Here are a few more questions you can ask:

  • What’s getting in the way of your productivity?
  • Are you able to do your job? Can you do the work?

The EEOC also provides additional examples of specific and direct questions that can be asked, which can be viewed here.

The goal of asking questions is to help the employee get back to their normal level of productivity. Asking an employee why productivity is down is the first step toward identifying an accommodation that fits their needs and allows them to fully perform their job duties.

Start by asking, “How are you?” The answer might lead to increased productivity.

Alison Daily, second vice president of clinical and vocational services at The Standard, oversees the clinical and return-to-work staff, and works closely with Standard Insurance Company’s medical director, physician staff and consultants.


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