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posted: 6/8/2014 6:19 AM

Work Advice: Should you share psychiatrist info?

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Q: I recently interviewed an applicant for a food service position for a residential facility. When reviewing availability for various shifts, the applicant mentioned that he had a weekly appointment with a psychiatrist, but not on a fixed day or time. I noted this on the write-up and recommended that we hire him.

My supervisor said he was uncomfortable with the fact that the applicant was seeing a psychiatrist and wanted to know if I had asked why. I told him I did not think it was appropriate or even legal to ask. My boss said that since the applicant brought it up, it was fair game. I told my boss that I have seen a psychiatrist in the past and would not refuse an otherwise qualified applicant based on this information.

Is my boss right? Could I legally ask why an applicant is under a psychiatrist's care?

A: Want to know what I'm "uncomfortable" with? People not seeking treatment they desperately need because they're afraid it will ruin their chances of getting hired.

As with other private medical issues, an employer does not have carte blanche to grill a candidate on his or her mental health -- even if the candidate brings it up. Any follow-up questions must be limited to whether and how the candidate can meet specific requirements of the job, with or without "reasonable accommodation." Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), your boss also can't refuse to hire the candidate based on "speculation about future risk, or generalizations about [his] disability," according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In fact, even if the candidate doesn't have an Ada-defined mental health disability, the boss's refusal to hire him merely because he perceives him as disabled would still be discrimination, says Sharon Snyder, of the national law firm, Ober Kaler.

If your boss is concerned about hiring workers with serious disorders -- understandable in a facility serving potentially vulnerable residents -- he should commission a thorough background check and interview all the candidate's references for clues about undesirable behavior. In fact, he should be doing that with any candidate.

For all your boss knows, this guy may be getting treatment for, you know, depression and anxiety due to unemployment. I'd be more concerned about hiring someone who needs psychiatric care and avoids it.

That said, the applicant would have been wiser to simply say he had a weekly commitment that, if necessary, he could adjust with advance notice. Bringing up his psychiatric care in an interview was an odd move, even "provocative," says Snyder. Being open and matter-of-fact is the best way to defeat stigma against mental health care -- but there's nothing wrong with reserving your intimate truths for an appropriate time and place.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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