American workers are protected by powerful anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of disability. For that reason, it generally prevents an employer from asking about your health during either the application process or even once you are hired.
However, there are several exceptions. The ADA recognizes that employers sometimes have legitimate reasons for requesting medical information, so it allows a company to request certain information at each stage of employment.
At this stage, an employer is generally prohibited from asking applicants whether they have a disability or about the severity of a disability that is already obvious. Nevertheless, an employer can ask the following:
- Whether the applicant will need an accommodation. For example, an employer might see that an applicant is blind. The employer can ask the applicant if he or she would need an accommodation if hired, but that is it.
- Whether the applicant can perform all the job duties. A job might require that the employee lift 50 pounds. It is acceptable to ask whether the applicant can satisfy this requirement.
If an employer tries to probe about a disability, they are probably breaking the law.
After Extending an Offer
An employer can begin to request more health-related information when they extend a job offer. For example, they can condition the offer on the applicant answering health-related questions or undergoing a physical exam.
There is an important limitation, however. The employer must request the same information from all the people to who it extends employment offers. An employer cannot single out some of the employees for this information while exempting others.
After Hiring an Employee
At this point, an employer can only ask for medical information in a few situations:
- If the employee requests an accommodation or FMLA leave. An employer might need proof of the disability in this situation and is entitled to ask for it.
- If the employer believes that an employee cannot perform the job successfully, they can ask for more information. The request must be job-related and consistent with the necessities of the business.
- If the employer believes an employee is a danger to other employees, the public, or her or himself, then an employer can request information. This request must also be job-related and consistent with business necessity.
For example, an employer might see that an employee is performing poorly. When asked why the employee admits that she has been diagnosed with cancer and the chemo has made her tired all the time. In this situation, it is probably reasonable for an employer to ask for more information about how long the chemo will affect the employee’s job performance.
Conversely, an employer who overhears a rumor that an employee has cancer but does not see any impairment of job performance does not have a reasonable basis to ask for more medical information. Doing so is probably illegal.
Protect Your Rights
The ADA is a powerful law that employees can rely on. If you feel that your employer is asking for too much medical information, then you might have a legal case.