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The Confidentiality of an Employee’s Medical Information

Fair Practice: Tips for Supervisors on Protecting Confidentiality

Carl Moore's avatar

By: Carl Moore

October 31, 2012 | EEOFair Practice

Supervisors are generally aware that an employee’s medical information is confidential. This, of course, means that anything the supervisor knows about an employee’s medical situation cannot be shared with other employees. Because of the sensitivity of this matter, there are a couple of situations a supervisor should be aware of in order to maintain the confidentiality of an employee’s medical information.

Situation #1- The Office Knows About the Employee’s Condition

Frequently, there is an employee who has a serious health condition and the employee is relatively open in sharing with others in the office what is happening. Particularly when the employee is out for treatment, co-workers around the coffee pot share their thoughts and concerns about their colleague. Such casual conversations can be a mine field for a supervisor.

Due to the nature of their role, a supervisor often knows more about what is happening than anyone else in the office. Since the employee has shared a lot with co-workers, a supervisor can easily fall into sharing also. The problem is when a supervisor discloses information that an employee has not shared with others. It is important for a supervisor to remember that he/she can commiserate with the employees, but should not comment on the employee’s condition. It is good to be sympathetic and supportive but, a supervisor needs to be very careful to not add any information to the office conversation about the employee’s condition, such as the reason the employee is not in the office on a particular day. Adding specifics like that could reveal information that the employee had no intention to share.

Situation #2- An Employee Receives a “Reasonable Accommodation” that Allows Them to be Out of the Office More than Usual

This situation could lead co-workers to ask why this employee is getting “special treatment.” If a supervisor even mentions the term “reasonable accommodation,” the supervisor has just revealed that the employee has a disability of some kind and the law prohibits even that general disclosure. Therefore, terms a supervisor might use include “procedures for special requests” and “confidentiality requirements.”  The supervisor might reply to the employee, “There are procedures for special requests and those procedures also have confidentiality requirements. So if you ever have such a special request, I’ll treat your request just as confidentially as I would anyone else’s.” This may not satisfy this employee’s curiosity, but in this case it is more important to maintain confidentiality rather than give the questioning employee satisfaction.

About the Author

Carl D Moore, Esq. was a senior consultant with NewPoint Strategies and a contributing author to this blog until his passing in 2013. He was also the author of TRUST: Short-Circuit the Hardwiring! – a book about EEO law and building trusting workplace relationships in order to avoid complaints, grievances, and law suits.

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