On a handful of occasions during my career, I had to deal with employees who were mentally ill. Several employees were depressed, and these situations could generally be worked through over time. But one individual had agoraphobia and wouldn’t leave his house, though his job required him to call on customers. Two others had schizophrenia, and their communications were difficult to understand and their workplace behaviors were bizarre. These were the more difficult situations. This month, I’m writing my “Favorite Firing” on one particular case of schizophrenia.
The Facts: “Sabrina” (not her real name) worked in an office environment, in a room where about ten employees worked. She had worked for the company for around twenty years. For most of her employment, her performance was adequate, though her behavior toward coworkers tended to be a little quirky. She didn’t have any friends among her colleagues, but they all got their jobs done.
As a Human Resources director, I became aware of Sabrina’s situation when her managers began complaining that she was accusing coworkers and managers of following her around. The managers denied that anyone was doing anything inappropriate toward Sabrina. Despite several conversations, Sabrina continued to accuse people of following her.
Then she began following others. To the rest room. To other departments. Her coworkers got freaked out. Sabrina was told not to follow anyone. She said she had to, because they were spying on her.
Sabrina was placed on a leave of absence and told to see her physician about her behavior. This was a risky move on the employer’s part, but workplace counseling was not getting through to Sabrina. While she was on leave, Sabrina sent us a lengthy, rambling diatribe of all the evil things that had been done to her by managers and coworkers. It was five pages of incomplete and run-on sentences, most of which made no sense. The company attempted to decipher her claims and investigate, but Sabrina’s allegations could not be substantiated.
Sabrina’s physician reported that she should be able to do her job, so she was returned to the workplace after a few weeks. The environment in the department did not improve, with both Sabrina and her coworkers reporting misdeeds. Everyone denied everything. The situation continued for several months.
Things came to a head when one of Sabrina’s managers complained that when she turned to confront Sabrina about following her down the hall, Sabrina stuck out her forefingers like guns and said “Gotcha.” It’s hard to tell what Sabrina meant by this, but the manager took Sabrina’s action as a threat of violence and was seriously shaken.
Sabrina was put on another leave, and was told she could not return without more information from her doctor about why she was behaving so oddly and assurances that her behavior would change. We hoped this additional leave would get her to seek medical help and perhaps begin medication that might improve her behavior. Again, a risky move on the part of the employer, but morale and productivity in the department were suffering and we could not continue as we had for so long.
We received no information back from Sabrina or her doctor, despite issuing deadlines in writing to Sabrina. After Sabrina’s FMLA leave rights expired, she was terminated, because we had no reason to think the situation would ever improve.
The Moral: We were fortunate that this case did not result in litigation. While the managers and I strongly suspected that Sabrina had schizophrenia, we had no verification. It would not have really mattered whether we ever got a diagnosis or not; our suspicions were probably enough to result in a finding under the Americans with Disabilities Act that Sabrina was protected because she was “regarded” as having a mental disability. We had to assume the ADA would apply to protect her.
Under the ADA, employers must engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Sabrina had performed her essential job functions for many years. In her last couple of years of employment, her performance suffered, but we would have had to prove that she no longer met the essential job functions. We had some documentation of poor performance, but much of the problem was behavioral, rather than low productivity.
Moreover, we would have had to prove that we attempted reasonable accommodation to get her to do her essential job functions. Her job primarily involved processing paper. She might have been able to do that. But communications with coworkers in her own and other departments were also critical, and her workplace relationships were broken by her odd behavior. We had not suggested any accommodations to Sabrina, because we had no diagnosis and no understanding of what might help her. On the other hand, she had not suggested any accommodations to us either—she denied she had any problems, and blamed everything on her managers and coworkers.
The medical leaves we put her on were the only way we felt we could get Sabrina to take the situation seriously. Ultimately, even the leaves did not get her to provide us with any information about accommodations. What if her doctor had told us that Sabrina could work from home, or could work in an isolated environment? Could we have accommodated these proposals? We might have at least had to try.
No one wanted to fire Sabrina, but the company also did not want to put up with the disruptive behavior in her department. We decided it was the best course of action. But I’ve always wondered what happened to Sabrina.
When have you confronted mental illness in the workplace? How did you handle it?