Here’s the dilemma. An employee seeks accommodation for a disability. It could be a special chair, time off when an impairment flairs up, bringing a service animal to work, or any of a million other things. Whatever the requested accommodation, the employer engages the employee in the interactive process, and decides that the accommodation is warranted. Everybody’s happy, right?
Not necessarily. Suppose the employee’s co-workers ask questions. Why don’t they get fancy new chairs or time off or to bring their pets to work? Why is this employee receiving special treatment? Can the employer respond that it took these steps to accommodate a disability? No.
A recent federal district court decision out of Sacramento (Grenier v. Spencer, No. 2:12-CV-0258, ED CA, 2013; reported in Business Management Daily) confirms that disclosure of the disability or even its symptoms can be an independent violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. As the EEOC explains:
Information can be confidential even if it contains no medical diagnosis or treatment course and even if it is not generated by a health care professional. For example, an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation would be considered medical information subject to the ADA’s confidentiality requirements.
It might be safe to say that the answer to the co-workers’ questions involve confidential personnel information. Also, if the employee wants to disclose the reason, nothing prevents him or her from doing so voluntarily. But as a general rule, the employer needs to keep its mouth shut and make sure that its managers know to do so too.