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How to Answer Employee Questions About a Co-Worker's ADA Accommodations

    Client Alerts
  • October 18, 2017

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with medical disabilities. The ADA also prohibits employers from disclosing information about an employee’s medical condition absent business necessity. What happens when employees ask questions about why a co-worker is receiving what appears to be preferential treatment? For example, an employee who is a recovering alcoholic is allowed to depart work early two days a week to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His co-workers demand to know why they are not granted similar scheduling flexibility.

Of course, the legally safest response is for the employer to say nothing. However, the need to maintain peace within the workplace can make silence impractical. In these circumstances, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided employers with some marginally useful guidance. In a 1997 “Enforcement Guidance,” the EEOC said that an employer may “explain that it is acting for legitimate business purposes or in compliance with federal law.” Perhaps sensing the unhelpfulness of this advice, in a 2007 federal employment decision, the EEOC said that employers could explain that the company has a policy of assisting employees who encounter difficulties in the workplace, and that employee privacy rights prevent the company from providing more details.

Despite this guidance, some employers may believe that they need to disclose additional information to avoid disputes among employees. While the disabled person receiving the accommodation may decide to tell co-workers about the reasons for the special treatment, any such disclosure by the employer runs the risk of an ADA claim based on the statute’s medical confidentiality rules.