Can I Ask An Employee Why He is Going to the Doctor?

Last Updated Oct 25, 2010 7:37 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I work in a field with high physical demands. When employees have protracted medical problems (acquired on the job or off), we allow them to work "restricted duty," i.e., office work, so that they do not have to use up all their sick leave.
If one of those employees on restricted duty needs time off for doctor's appointments, physical therapy, etc., we allow that during work hours, with the goal being to return the employee to his regular job. However, one employee seems to be "seeing the doctor" quite frequently (multiple times per week).
Can I as a manager ask the general purpose of the doctor's visits? I simply want to know if they are related to the illness or injury that has put the employee on restricted duty. For example, if the person is off with a back injury, we would allow them to see a doctor regarding that injury during work hours. On the other hand, if the person is going for cosmetic surgeries, that should be done on personal time.
Thanks for your help.
Every time you go to the doctor's office they hand you a piece of paper to read and sign regarding HIPAA. As a result, everyone is freaked out about medical information. No one wants to violate anyone's privacy. This is all fine and good, but don't get freaked out and think that because of privacy laws you can't deal with a frequently absent employee.

Now, I applaud you for having a great attitude towards helping sick or injured employees get the care they need to get back up to speed. That's awesome. However, you need to throw in the requirement of a doctor's certification. Just having someone say to you, "Hey, I need light duty plus I'll be leaving by 2:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the next three weeks for uhhhh, Physical Therapy" isn't going to cut it.

You need to require physician certification that the light duty is warranted. You can even throw into your policy that cosmetic procedures are not part of this policy and therefore personal time will be docked for any and all appointments and time off needed for such things. (Of course, even I think of a loophole now. If someone is getting plastic surgery due to a disfiguring car accident or mastectomy or something that seems a heck of a lot different than "I've always wanted liposuction.")

The key here is you want all employees to be subject to this. Now, I know I can hear the wailing now. "You HR people always want to throw policies that burden managers. Just let us manage!" Well, wah. Don't come to me with these questions if you don't want a fix and when you didn't come to me (because you just wanted to manage) prepare yourself for your lawsuit. I won't even be deposed because you never came to me.

Sorry. Just a touch of bitterness coming through.

I'm a huge fan of letting managers do what needs to be done to keep their good people happy and get their bad people out the door and make bigger profits and all that, because bigger profits=bigger bonus for me! (I'm not entirely selfish- I entered the profession because I want to help people! Or something like that.) But, when it comes down to something like this, if you've never required a doctor's note from anybody else (because, well, duh, the cast on the leg, the wheezing cough, and the arm in the sling made it obvious that they were injured or sick), and now you have a slacker, you better hope that slacker is the same age/race/gender/sexual orientation/nationality and religion as everyone else on light duty or you may find yourself with a fun little discrimination lawsuit.

(I honestly hate that. I know you're treating this person differently because he's behaving differently. But lawyers just see dollar signs.)

So, what to do. Have a conversation with the employee and tell them what you told me. That is, if you're sick or injured we want to make sure you get the support you need so you can get better. If you're going through multiple laser treatments to remove your ex-wife's picture from your back, well, you need to start making Saturday appointments.

Chances are the guy will spill his guts right there. If he says, "Oh yeah, it's a back injury," you need to make a decision. Do you have the policy of just accepting everyone's word, or will you require doctor's notes? Because if it's the former, trust that someone will take advantage of you. If it's the latter, trust that someone who needs a day or two of light duty but isn't sick enough to see a doctor is going to get screwed over. It's the sad side effect of too many lawyers, but that's certainly a topic for another day.

You do have a distinct advantage here in that he's taking time off for doctor's appointments, so getting paperwork signed should be no big deal.

I do think you need to address this as soon as possible. The longer it goes, the worse the situation will become. And keep in mind that if you're subject to FMLA or ADA all that good stuff applies here. You don't have to pay for time off under FMLA but you do have to allow it without penalizing the employee otherwise for conditions subject to FMLA.

Whatever you do, be consistent with all your employees. You can't just make this guy get a doctor's note and nobody else. You can't allow Steve time off for his nose job because everyone agrees it's really ugly, but not John because we all think he's making a mistake and will regret those pectoral implants.

Photo by Ranger78, Flickr cc 2.0
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    Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate Human Resources. She's hired, fired, and analyzed the numbers for several major companies. She founded the Carnival of HR, a bi-weekly gathering of HR blogs, and her writings have been used in HR certification and management training courses across the country.

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