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Lynne Curry: Manager with disability a problem

Lynne Curry

Q. Our office manager stays home frequently to care for her small son when he's ill. Although she's made a copy of QuickBooks and says she gets even more done at home than at the office, I suspect she doesn't get much done at home. I recently asked her about two high-priority projects and she wasn't further along on them the day after she returned from a home day than she was her last day in the office.

I'm not a micro-manager so having to monitor what she's working on would be draining and easier if she was only working in the office. Also, our office manager supervises our three administrative and accounting staff and I'm told they Internet surf much of the day when she's not there.

I had prepared a written reprimand letting her know that I couldn't allow any more work from home days, that she either needed to take paid time off or use unpaid leave if circumstances kept her home.

On the day I planned telling her this, she presented me with a physician's note stating that she suffered from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder, and that some of her past absences were so she could get medical treatment and not simply care for her son.

In effect, she's been lying to me. Can I discharge her or does this medical condition buy her time?

A. Although your employee's covering up angers you, many employees keep medical issues private. Some want to avoid embarrassment or fear how their employers may react. Others hold medical issues as a trump card to forestall discipline for performance problems when they sense their manager may finally say enough's enough.

If you had addressed your employee's absenteeism when it first bothered you, you wouldn't necessarily be facing the danger you now face -- that your reprimand is because you're reacting to her medical issues.

Does her medical condition buy her time and preclude firing her? Absolutely; you need to treat her as you would any employee with a qualifying disability in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This means you have to accommodate to her disability if you can do so without causing your business undue hardship. Accommodating doesn't necessarily mean letting her work from home. According to attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, "Many employers successfully accommodate employees with Crohn's by moving their work station closer to bathrooms and allowing them frequent restroom breaks and flexible work schedules and leave during flare-ups."

Birdsall suggests you ask your employee for a doctor's note explaining the nature and severity of her Crohn's condition with recommendations for accommodations. Says Birdsall: "I call 'BS' on this employee's claim she needs to work from home all the time; my guess -- she's over- playing her hand because you've let her get by with it."

In a landmark case involving Crohn's, absenteeism and the request to work from home, TWA terminated an employee with Crohn's disease after he took 44 absences one year and 175 the next year. The employee, a customer service professional, claimed TWA needed to let him work at home as an accommodation to his disability.

Although TWA warned the employee further absences might result in termination, he was again absent. When TWA fired him and the employee sued, the court dismissed his lawsuit, ruling that a customer service agent couldn't reasonably work at home as his job involved public contact.

Can your office manager viably work from home? If so, you need to learn how to monitor her productivity and establish backup supervision for your administrative staff -- given their Internet surfing, someone else might handle this task better than your office manager.

Or, as you depend on her to supervise others and daily interact with co-workers, do you need her daily in the office? If so, let her know the accommodations you can and will make and the amount of absenteeism you'll allow.

If she's a good employee who privately struggles with a challenging disability, you'll want to provide her understanding and fairness.

If, however, your suspicions prove accurate, this employee has had a sweet deal. That type of employee often pushes for a sweeter deal when they have leverage. Don't give her any by acting hastily or unfairly -- or you may find yourself in front of a judge, jury or the Human Rights Commission.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management- employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company. Send questions to lynne@thegrowthcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.


Lynne Curry
ManagementBy LYNNE CURRY