How Can Employers Support Hidden Disabilities in the Workplace?

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An employee with hidden disability in the office.If you’re reading this article, it’s clear you care about morale in your workplace and the wellbeing of your employees. That’s a great place to start for any work environment. An important factor in fostering a productive work environment is providing the proper support to employees with disabilities. This task can be especially difficult when you want to act lawfully, respectfully, and supportively toward employees with hidden disabilities. So how can employers support hidden disabilities in the workplace? Read on to find out.

Supporting Employees with Hidden Disabilities Builds Greater Job Satisfaction and a Stronger Business

The University of Southern California recently reported that less than 50% of American workers are satisfied with their jobs, and businesses can lose billions of dollars because of heavy turnover in the workforce. A large factor in employee dissatisfaction is employees feeling distrust towards their supervisors. And a large factor in employees feeling engaged with their jobs is feeling confident they can meet goals at work. If an employee feels the need to hide their disability at work, there’s a good chance they do not trust their working environment, and they could be having trouble hitting work goals while silently managing the effects of their disability alone. Employers who create an environment that supports employees with hidden disabilities can improve the wellbeing of their workforce and the stability of their business.

Basic Rules for Interacting with Employees with Disabilities

Starting in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees (or potential employees) with disabilities.

Definition of a Disability

An employee has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This could include impairment to one or more of the following activities:

  • Breathing,
  • Caring for self,
  • Hearing,
  • Learning,
  • Manual tasks,
  • Seeing,
  • Speaking, or
  • Working.

As you can see, the term “disability” can cover a broad range of physical or mental differences, and not all of them are visible. You could have an employee living with a mental, internal, or physical difference that isn’t noticeable or is easy to conceal. Whether a disability is noticeable or not, employees with disabilities typically must have access to a certain level of protection in the workplace.

Rights of Employees with Disabilities

In general, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee with a known disability. Discriminatory acts could be in the form of:

  • Not hiring an employee with a disability,
  • Terminating an employee with a disability,
  • Denying an employee with a disability job benefits, or
  • Not reasonably accommodating an employee with a disability.

You cannot deny an employee a job on the basis of disability if they can perform the essential functions of their job with or without accommodation. You also have to provide reasonable accommodations to address the needs of an employee with a disability. A reasonable accommodation is one that isn’t an undue burden on your business. If you’re unsure what is or isn’t an undue burden when making workplace accommodations, an attorney with experience in disability discrimination claims can help you.

Supporting Employees with Disabilities

Providing accommodations for an employee with hidden disabilities can go a long way. The proper accommodations can give an employee the confidence to meet their goals at work and stay engaged with their job. But there’s a catch. It’s illegal for you to ask an employee if they have a disability, and you need to know about their disability to properly accommodate them.

Some employees refrain from revealing disabilities to employers for personal reasons, and others refrain because they fear repercussions at work. Although there are laws to protect employees with disabilities, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that they received 24,324 charges of disability discrimination in the workplace in 2020. This statistic explains why some employees might be hesitant to provide their employer with disability information.

So what is an employer supposed to do to support an employee with a hidden disability?

Actively Educate Your Workplace About ADA Laws to Show Your Employees That You Respect Their Rights

Sometimes employers find themselves in violation of workplace discrimination laws because they don’t understand their obligations. The EEOC provides a technical assistance program that teaches employers about their ADA responsibilities and teaches employees about ADA rights. If your workforce understands their rights and obligations under the ADA, employees with hidden disabilities might feel empowered to reveal their disabilities and request the workplace accommodations they need. You can also put your confidence in an experienced workplace discrimination attorney to help you protect your workplace and support your employees.

Be Very Clear About an Employee’s Essential Job Obligations to Lessen Fear and Confusion Around Asking for and Providing Accommodations

Employees with disabilities have to be able to perform their essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations. If an employee with a disability is qualified for their job but needs reasonable accommodation to help them perform essential functions, you need to provide reasonable accommodation. Your employee also needs to have confidence that you can and will accommodate them when it’s necessary.

While the EEOC notes that many times the right reasonable accommodation is obvious, they also recognize that you might need to ask your employee about what they need. A detailed description of an employee’s essential job functions can help them (and you) identify where they need assistance and the simplest way you can provide effective assistance. Having these clear conversations with your employees can assure them that you respect their personal experiences and input. These conversations also let your employee know that you want them to do well at work.

Contact an Attorney Today to Make the Best out of Your Workplace Experience

Whether you’re an employer or an employee with a disability, the attorneys at Smithey Law Group LLC, can help improve your workplace experience. We are award-winning employment lawyers who have many years of experience. Call us at 410-881-8994 or contact us online to learn more about what we can do for you.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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