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Off the Records

When it comes to what's in your employees' medical records, keep your questions to yourself. The less you know, the better.

This story appears in the November 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When was the last time someone told you something was "none of your business"? That's the law's position on employees' medical conditions. If you ask for details-or disclose them-you may expose yourself to lawsuits under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or common-law invasion-of-privacy claims.

Consider a recent case at Minnesota Power & Light. A worker injured her back in a fall while moonlighting at a restaurant, causing a 10.5 percent disability. When the employee later sought a transfer to another department, the power company had her evaluated to see if she could meet the physical demands of the new position. When the clinic determined the woman could only lift 20 to 35 pounds, the supervisor of the new department, without getting permission from the woman, told subordinates of her back injury, lifting restrictions, and the fact that a former supervisor suspected cognitive deficiencies (which tests had not confirmed). The woman's co-workers treated her patronizingly. Worse, when the supervisor learned that the woman had applied for a letter-carrier job, he informed the U.S. Postal Service about her back injury and lifting restrictions, which led to her not being hired. All this led to a bout of depression, psychotherapy and medication.

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