HR not MD

by Evil HR Lady on October 1, 2009

I’ve put my thoughts on why HR isn’t responsible to guess what medical problems you have over at US News. Check it out and leave your comments.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Riley October 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm

As always, enjoyed your post on US News!

Also, this is spot on!

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class-factotum October 2, 2009 at 1:20 pm

you may not want to share your medical problems with the whole office

Ah, how well I remember trying to call my gyn after my boss had let another department throw us out of our offices and put us in cubicles. The joy of seeking an empty conference room so I could speak privately and then to be told that the nurse would have to call me back.

PS Congrats on the US News gig.

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Anonymous October 2, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Bravo! My crystal ball is fuzzy on a lot of things, including health conditions and accomodation needs. Now, if we can get this out to all of our employees.

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Anonymous October 3, 2009 at 3:29 am

I was active in the other post's comments, trying to raise awareness of sleep disorders, so I'd like to thank EHRL for her contribution to the discussion. Certainly no one in HR should assume that "…a medical problem caused the behavior," and the larger point that "HR is not MD" is inescapable for EHRL's compelling reasons and more. However, this is not really relevant to the narrower point I was trying to make–apparently with less than complete success.

Let me give a somewhat different example that may serve better as an illustration. Imagine the same basic facts as in the other post, but instead of finding the employee sleeping, you find him undergoing a grand mal seizure, from which he recovers while you are with him. It's still true that "ER is not MD", but that doesn't mean that an HR person or supervisor should just leave the room and act as if nothing happened unless the employee initiates a conversation. The incident raises several issues that demand some immediate attention, both in the workplace and perhaps on a human level independent of job function (the second is probably more compelling for an immediate supervisor than a relative stranger from HR).

Unlike a seizure, sleeping is not inherently pathological. However, and this was my point, excessive sleepiness can be a symptom of a potentially life-threatening, and not unlikely, medical condition (also note the discussion of shift workers in the first link). Unfortunately, embedded in our culture are a set of counterproductive and scientifically poorly informed folk beliefs that work against recognition of its potential importance. I had hoped to challenge those beliefs, and to suggest that the situation was possibly more like the seizure example than it might seem at first. For reasons I mentioned in the other discussion, patient awareness and medical diagnosis of sleep disorders is often slow in coming. As a supervisor, I would not necessarily want to be completely passive waiting for the employee to clue me in.

There are many other possibilities besides a sleep disorder (legal or illegal drug use, trying to get by without enough sleep, etc.). The appropriate intervention to resolve the workplace problem depends on the cause. Some additional knowledge would be valuable, but it is not necessarily cheap or easy to come by. But it's also not cheap or easy to fire an employee and recruit a replacement, unless of course the purpose of your business is finding reasons to fire people. It may be the best option in a given case, but I was dismayed by the determination of some commenters not to consider alternatives in a case where it may be well justified to do so. Certainly the supervisor whose original query led to the post took the step very reluctantly. I'm sure he thought through all his options. I'd like to invite others facing a similar decision to consider some medical facts that I don't think are as well known as they should be.

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Anonymous October 3, 2009 at 3:38 am

I should probably add that my purpose is to provide some information that might help supervisors or employees like the ones in the other post to make the best possible decision with full consideration of some relevant facts.

It's still true that "HR is not MD", and if a given HR person or supervisor takes action without taking account of relevant medical facts, well, we can't all know everything about everything all the time. I wouldn't say they were criminally negligent for not being better informed. But this is something that I think can be valuable if you do know about it.

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Evil HR Lady October 3, 2009 at 5:26 am

anon–I would call 911 if someone began seizing. The difference between falling asleep and seizing is that I (with my lack of medical knowledge) know to call 911 in case of seizure. Everybody would. But, after that phone call, it would be the employee's responsibility to seek help and/or accommodations. Yes, we would know about them, but again, lacking medical knowledge, don't know what that means.

A seizure can be caused by many different things and you bet I wouldn't guess as to what caused it.

If the employee falls asleep on the job, it's his responsibility to seek help, if help is needed. If it's just laziness, well, such is life.

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Anonymous October 4, 2009 at 5:02 am

EHRL, I appreciate the opportunity I've had here to make my various points about sleep disorders. I think it's time to wind it up now, so I'll just say in response to your last comment that I agree the employer can't be involved in the employee's medical care. I do think if there's an opportunity for something like a nudge in the direction of an employee assistance program, as I think you suggested elsewhere, it's worth serious consideration. It might lead to a much better outcome in the case of an employee with a developing sleep disorder who hasn't figured out on his own what needs to be done. Beyond that, if a supervisor or HR rep's decisions are made in light of a reasonable awareness of the medical issues–not mind reading, just intelligently taking the circumstances and the range of possibilities into account–I think that's all anyone can ask.

If you're the employee, though, and you find you're excessively sleepy and don't know why, please do take it seriously, get some information, and see a doctor if it's appropriate. It's much better to check in with your doctor when you don't need to than to wait for an occasion like an accident or being fired from your job.

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SarahC October 5, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Oh so true! As I have pointed out to many line managers over the years, if I were a qualified doctor or psychiatrist I'd be off somewhere saving lives and earning the big bucks, not scraping out a living as an HR wage slave. :-)

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Anonymous October 5, 2009 at 6:57 pm

Excessive ANYTHING can be a symptom of a serious problem. The problem is how is someone supposed to know it's excessive?

If a supervisor only catches someone sleeping twice is it appropriate for them to assume that it's happening all the time or that it's an excessive amount? It may have just been the two times, it may have been the 2 times out of 50 he got caught. If the supervisor actually caught him 50 times because he's falling asleep multiple times per day that's another story but I think it was only twice in the letter sent to EHRL.

You'd have to see something happening a lot to get the idea that it's excessive and for a problem like sleeping on the job you don't necessarily get that many chances before you're fired.

– RP

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El Comodoro October 8, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Nice article, EHRL. Y'know, there for a minute I was a little "dismayed", to use Anon's term above, that EHRL was changing formats from Classic HR Rock to Easy Listening for Sleep Disorders.

While I do respect Anon's passion and profuse knowledge for a specific malady, you distilled the argument to its simpler form: A manager can't (and really shouldn't) try to diagnose problems that are utterly out of his/her purview.

Again, nice job. I now brace myself for the sleep disorder community's wrath.

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Anonymous October 9, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Hey Folks – after working in HR they should be handing out honorary PhD's in Psych.

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