What should an employer do if an employee shows signs of possible mental illness?

A previously good employee is starting to behave erratically or strangely. It is starting to disrupt the workplace. The change is such that it appears it may be tied to mental health problems. How should a smart employer handle this?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) bars employers with 15 workers or more from discriminating against workers when an impairment “substantially limits” their ability to engage in “one or more major life activities.” Many state laws include similar prohibitions. A disability or impairment covered by these laws can be either physical or mental. So the employer in this scenario may be dealing with a “disabled” employee. And the law applies whether an employer
knows a worker has a mental impairment, or merely perceives one.

Many employers’ first instinct when they think behavior may be tied to a mental impairment — a worker starts being confrontational or is “acting out” in ways he never did before, for example — is to ask what it can do to help. This is not the best approach. The employer should simply document and discipline the inappropriate behavior without speculating as to its causes. Focus on the
behavior– not where it might be coming from.

The ADA does allow employers to request that workers submit to a “fitness-for-duty” exam under certain circumstances. If it has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that a worker has a condition that impairs his ability to perform essential job functions, or that causes him to pose a “direct threat” to health or safety, it can require such an exam. This exam cannot be aimed at learning whether the worker is disabled, but a doctor
can ask disability-related questions if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

Documentation is critical. If a company has solid, documented evidence that an employee poses a threat, or can’t perform essential parts of the job, it can require him to submit to an examination as a condition of continued employment.

In addition to the ADA’s bar on discrimination, the law allows protected workers to request a “reasonable accommodation” needed to perform their job, so long as it doesn’t pose an “undue hardship” on the employer. What is “reasonable,” and what constitutes “undue,” will vary from case to case, so employers should approach the situation practically, and should get legal advice. An employer doesn’t have to give whatever accommodation a worker requests, but it does have to try in good faith to find something that works for both it and the employee.

Litigation is a risk employers can’t totally eliminate when the ADA is involved. But by documenting performance and disciplinary issues
without assuming that mental or physical illness is the cause, and by offering reasonable accommodations where appropriate, an employer can put itself in a strong position to successfully defend itself.