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How much should you tell your boss about your health situation?

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ANN MARIE AMES
January 12, 2008

It’s not fun to talk about.


Maybe it’s even painful.


You wish you could ignore it so it would go away.


But an illness or a disability is not going away. And among many other things, it could affect your job performance.


But it might not affect the fact that you have a job.


The best thing to do when you have a medical issue that might affect your work performance is to tell your employer about it, said Jeannie Randels, program/human resources director at Kandu Industries, 1741 Adel St., Janesville. Start with your direct supervisor or human resources representative—whomever you’re most comfortable with, Randels said.


“It depends on each business, and it depends on how severe or serious the illness or injury is,” she said. “You might just want to say, ‘I just want to let you know, if I’m not on my game, it’s because I’m having migraines lately.’”


The first thing to do is educate yourself about confidentiality laws, Randels said. The Rock County Job Center and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development have information about the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows you to take time off work to care for yourself, your children or your parents without fear of losing your job.


“Once you gain that understanding that it has to be kept confidential, you’re going to be a lot more comfortable,” Randels said.


And if you have a medical disability—meaning you’ve done all the healing you’re going to—your workplace must make reasonable accommodations for you to do your job, she said.


If you have a temporary restriction such as a broken bone, your workplace does not have to provide accommodations.


Wendy Cuevas, vice president of human resources for Blackhawk Credit Union, 2640 W. Court St., Janesville, also said an employee should feel confident that word won’t get around about an illness.


At Blackhawk, only two people have access to that information, she said.


Even more important, people should be working in a comfortable and supportive environment, she said.


“I’m always the optimist,” Cuevas said. “I’m a big believer in the fact that we spend more time at work than we do at home. So I always encourage people to have as good a relationship as they can with their employers. If they have a personal, family or work issue that I can help them with by being aware of, I would like to know about it.”


But not all employers are equal, Cuevas said.


“I would caution people to be cognizant in the work place of their comfort level,” she said. “They are absolutely entitled to their privacy. They certainly shouldn’t feel like they should have to talk about it if they don’t want.”


Employees are responsible for telling their employer about an illness or disability, said Peter Berg, project coordinator of technical assistance with the Great Lakes ADA Disability Business Technical Assistance Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago.


And the day you get fired isn’t the right time, Berg said. If you are having trouble with a medication and find yourself calling in sick, you shouldn’t wait until you’ve been disciplined to the point of termination before speaking up, he said.


“There’s no requirement to disclose medical information,” Berg said. “But it is the employee’s responsibility to make a request for accommodations. If an employer has no knowledge, they can’t do anything to help.”


How to work together to meet special needs

No one can ever be forced to tell an employer about a medical issue.


But if you tell your employer what’s wrong, the employer is required by law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help you succeed at work.


Employers and prospective employees should be prepared to talk about the subject as early as during a pre-hiring interview, said Charlene Dwyer, the administrator of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation within the Department of Workforce Development.


“This is a multi-layered and ‘case-by-case’ area of the Americans with Disabilities Act that defies one-size-fits all advice,” Dwyer said. “But I would offer three general suggestions.”


-- Employers and prospective employees should keep the interview focused on the candidate’s abilities but be prepared to discuss the need for reasonable accommodations.


You can’t go wrong with this basic approach, but it also requires pre-interview preparation, she said.


-- The employer must make sure its job descriptions clearly describe the ‘essential functions of the job’ and should provide all candidates the job description in advance of their interviews.


It is important to remember that the hiring process is a two-way street, and the candidate should be selecting the employer as well as the other way around.


-- Finally, the two parties might have to talk about whether the essential job functions can be done with a reasonable accommodation. In that case, the employer should ask the candidate what he or she suggests. Prospective employees with disabilities are almost always the best resource for knowing how to accommodate their disability and often can offer a solution that is inexpensive and easy to implement.


A candidate might ask for help with identifying the accommodation, which often happens with recently disabled individuals. The employer could get help from a rehabilitation technology expert, but should include the prospective employee in the discussions and decision.


A call to the local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation office can help an employer secure technology expertise.



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