"The rule of thumb is that it’s appropriate when the employer has legitimate reasons to doubt the validity of the employee’s absence. That depends on circumstance. Most people would acknowledge that intermittent employee absenteeism is normal, so it would not be appropriate, for example, if an employee is off sick one day in every seven months.”
If the employee has informed the organization of a long absence due to illness it may be appropriate to request further information. But tread carefully, it is only reasonable to request medical information as it relates to the employees duties and asking for specifics on the medical diagnosis or treatment is always a no go.
Bird said employers are only entitled to information that validates the legitimacy of the employee absence.
“The more extended nature of the absence the greater the impact to the organization,” she said.
“If the employee is gone for a day or two it’s likely not a great impact on the organization, if the employee is gone for six weeks that’s likely an impact on the business operations. As the impact grows the obligation for the employee to justify their absence similarly heightens. It’s very circumstantial but where an employee is absent for a long period of time the employer is likely entitled to a brief description of the nature of the illness to enable them to esure the employee’s absence is valid.”
Specific legislation differs between provinces, but as a guideline, the Alberta Human Rights Commission states that when requesting medical information the employer should consider the following:
- whether the information requested is needed to determine the employee's job responsibilities;
- whether the information is needed to accommodate the employee;
- how the employee's privacy will be protected when the information has to be shared with other people; and
- whether the request meets specifications of the collective agreement, if one is in place.
Clear policies are the best way to avoid legal issues down the track.
“A little bit of prevention goes a long way,” Bird said. “By that I mean a little bit of policy drafting goes a long way to assuring employers that they can adequately manage absences and can require medical documentation and that’s the take home message.”
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