Suicidal Employee & Concerned Coworkers

By Angela Adams, CEBS, SPHR, Director, Human Resource Services
Published July 10, 2018

Question: We had an employee try to commit suicide. He is now in the hospital for both mental issues and grave physical injuries. When employees in his department were assigned some of his work, they began to ask questions about where he is and when he is coming back. What, if anything, can we tell them? He is planning on returning to work at some point. Therefore, we think it might be beneficial for people to know why he was out so that they don’t cause him undue stress when he returns. 

employee confidentiality

Answer:  Employees' medical issues are strictly on a “need-to-know” basis.  Human resources, the employee’s manager, and other relevant management team members (such as a safety manager) should be the only ones who know details. For employees who want to know why he is out, you can state simply that he is off work taking care of personal issues. If they press you, you can explain that you do not share details of anyone’s non-work life with others. Often if you explain that likewise, you would not share any of their personal information with others if they were out, they understand. 

In terms of your feeling that it would be beneficial for others to know, your employees are not mental health therapists or social workers. They may inadvertently say the wrong thing in an effort to be kind. Most times employees, when returning from medical leave, do not want to be treated differently or singled out. In fact, if you tell others, it could create problems for you under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA contains privacy provisions that you could violate by sharing this information with others who are not on a “need-to-know” basis. 

As the employee prepares to return to work, you may want to say something to him along the lines of, “If there is anything we can do to help you as you return, please let us know.” This is general enough that if the employee himself feels it is beneficial to have others know why he was out, he can bring that to your attention and you can work together on a plan to communicate to those he feels need to know. The employee also can share the information with others directly if he chooses. 

Association members with questions should contact the HR Hotline at 800-448-4584 or hotline@hrsource.org

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