May an employer ask an employee whether diabetes is causing her performance problems?


Several times a day for the past month, Claire, the receptionist, has missed numerous phone calls and has not been at her desk to greet clients. Her supervisor, Patti, overhears Claire tell a coworker that she feels tired much of the time, is always thirsty, and constantly has to go to the bathroom. Patti wants to ask Claire if she has a medical condition, like diabetes, that is causing her performance problems. Can she do so without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?


The ADA strictly limits the circumstances under which an employer may ask questions about an employee's medical condition or require an employee to have a medical examination. In this instance, Patti may ask Claire whether she has diabetes or send her for a medical examination because she has a reason to believe that diabetes may be affecting the receptionist's ability to perform one of her essential duties — sitting at the front desk for long periods of time.

Generally, an employer may ask disability-related questions or require an employee to have a medical examination when it knows about a particular employee's medical condition, has observed performance problems, and reasonably believes that the problems are related to a medical condition. At other times, an employer may ask for medical information when it has observed symptoms, such as extreme fatigue or irritability, or has received reliable information from someone else (for example, a family member or coworker) indicating that the employee may have a medical condition that is causing performance problems. Often, however, poor job performance is unrelated to a medical condition and generally should be handled in accordance with an employer's existing policies concerning performance.

Source: EEOC Guidance: “Questions and Answers about Diabetes in the Workplace and the ADA,” reported in Accommodating Disabilities Business Management Guide ¶140,325..

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