Any Real Housewives fans out there? I'm not ashamed to admit that I sometimes (with shocking frequency) set aside my Wall Street Journal and Brendon Burchard books on high-performance business habits to engage in a slightly less lofty use of my downtime. Although the ladies of Beverly Hills reign supreme in my book, the housewives of New York City are certainly entertaining AF ("AND FUN" ... what did you think I meant?!).
For those of you who do not watch The Real Housewives of New York (RHONY) on Bravo, suffice it to say that the show is about a group of incredibly rich women doing lavish things while sometimes engaging in petty arguments and competitiveness that unfortunately confirm multiple sexist stereotypes about women. In my defense, I'm only tuning in to peer into the tony world of the NYC elite as they sashay around Manhattan, the Hamptons, and other luxurious locales around the world, usually dripping in diamonds and designer duds and carrying a Birkin bag. Recently, however, I gleaned an important employment law lesson from RHONY's July 30 episode.
Unsavory Comments Smack of ADA Violation
Ramona Singer, the self-appointed queen of RHONY who has been on the show for all 12 seasons, spoke on camera about newcomer Leah McSweeney's bipolar disorder. Specifically, Ramona was filmed telling another co-star, "I found out [Leah]'s bipolar and she's on medication." Ramona, who has not gotten along with Leah for the majority of season 12, told the Bravo cameras that her discovery that Leah is bipolar "explains it all" in a thinly veiled dig insinuating that Leah's alleged misbehavior this season is attributable to mental illness. Not surprisingly, Ramona faced considerable backlash on social media for gossiping about Leah's mental health issues and outing her on camera, prompting Ramona to issue a public apology.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (or the Rehabilitation Act for federal employees and applicants), disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because he or she has a disability. Disability discrimination also occurs when an employer treats an applicant or employee less favorably because he or she has a history of a disability (such as a past major depressive episode) or because he or she is believed to be substantially impaired in a major life activity (even if he or she does not actually have such an impairment).
It is also illegal to harass an applicant or employee because he or she has a disability, had a disability in the past, or is believed to have a disability. Harassment can include, for example, offensive remarks about a person's disability, although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren't very serious.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), generally, an employer can only ask disability-related questions or require a medical exam if medical documentation is needed to support an employee's request for an accommodation or if the employer believes that an employee is not able to perform a job successfully or safely because of a medical condition. Even then, the law requires that employers keep all medical records and information confidential and in separate medical files. Discussing an employee's physical or mental health issues for any other reason is strictly off limits.
In some small way, I hope my predilection for trashy reality TV has enlightened you on the dangers of discussing an employee's medical issues at work. If you become aware that someone at your workplace is suffering from a physical or mental health issue, make sure you keep that information confidential. Unless you are asking disability-related questions of an employee in order to evaluate the employee's request for a reasonable accommodation or to determine whether the employee is able to perform a job successfully or safely, FUHGEDDABOUDIT! And don't even think of pulling a Ramona and gossiping about an employee's disability to your catty cohorts, lest you and your company wind up in hot water for violating the ADA.
Be well, readers!
(Psst! Hey, Bravo, if you ever want to expand the Real Housewives franchise to Orlando, I'm your gal.)
Originally published August 19, 2020.
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