Q: Can you commit disability discrimination against someone who’s not disabled?

A: Yes.

If that answer seems odd to you, or plain wrong, you need to know about what’s known as disability “association” discrimination. This means showing bias against employees not because of any disability they might have, but because of their family relationship or even friendship with a person who IS disabled.

Here are three scenarios where an unwary employer might get in trouble:

  • A manager refuses to promote an employee because the manager believes the employee won’t be able to handle the added responsibility. This might be the case if, for instance, the employee has a disabled child who requires long hours of care.
  • An employer refuses to hire an applicant who has responsibilities toward a disabled friend or family member.
  • An employer disciplines or terminates an employee because the disabled person with whom they associate has cost – or threatens to cost – the company money. This would be most likely to happen if a dependent’s medical condition affects the company’s health plan premiums.

Obviously, if an employee’s performance actually does suffer because of an association with a disabled person, you have every right to address those performance issues. But you don’t have the right to take pre-emptive action in an effort to avoid such outcomes. Under federal law, that’s disability discrimination, pure and simple.

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