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Mind Games

How to deal with an employee you suspect has a psychiatric disorder.

Starbucks has found itself in hot water after dismissing a barista with psychiatric problems. Although the employee's former managers had accommodated her condition, the employee claims a new manager refused to do so and fired her. In September, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against the company.

Consider these statistics: Nearly 15 million American adults experience major depression in any given year. More than 10 million Americans are bipolar. Another 2 percent to 5 percent have panic disorder, meaning they have recurring panic attacks that disrupt their lives.

If you think an employee has a psychiatric problem, focus conversations on performance to avoid an Americans With Disabilities Act claim. "A manager would never attempt to deal with, counsel or advise on a physical condition the way some might on an emotional condition," says Jonathan Segal, vice chair of employment services at Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen in Philadelphia. "Don't guess; don't speculate."

If an employee discloses a condition, request medical documentation and ask if there are reasonable accom-modations he or she would like you to consider making. "Consider is the operative word," Segal says. "What you're really doing is reframing this not as a disability issue, but as a functions issue."

Keep all accommodations reasonable--and be consistent with their application. "When you've gone beyond [what] the law [requires] the first time," Segal says, "you run the risk [that] the accommodation you've done before comes back to bite you."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Mind Games.

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