Worker with Intermittant Explosive Disorder: “Accommodate Me…or else!”

June 14th, 2006 by

Earlier this week, our colleague Julie Ferguson blogged a new diagnosis for people with uncontrollable tempers: intermittant explosive disorder. Some call it “road rage.’ (Here in the Boston area, we call it “ordinary driver” syndrome.) Call it what you will, with an estimated 7% of the population suffering from the disorder, this scary phenomenon is an all-too-frequent presence in the American workplace. (We have blogged workplace violence a number of times, as you will see if you try the search engine on the right side of this blog.)
Which brings us to another management conundrum: you have a policy prohibiting workplace violence. You do not tolerate any employee who threatens other employees. But do you have an obligation to “reasonably accommodate” an employee who is diagnosed with intermittant explosive disorder? Are they protected by the ADA?
ADA versus OSHA
As usual with ADA issues, there is no across-the-board eligibility. It’s certainly conceivable that you might have an employee fly off the handle, then ask for “reasonable accommodation” when you move toward termination. There can be an explicit tension between the ADA’s “need to accommodate” and OSHA’s general duty clause, which mandates a safe and healthy workplace.
While a case can be made that “intermittant explosive disorder” is a disability that impacts one or more major life activities, it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that it also impacts the lives of others: not just spouses and children (the most common victims of the rage), but coworkers and supervisors as well. People diagnosed with this disorder most likely present a threat of “immediate harm” to others, and thus are likely to fall outside of ADA protection.
As a general rule, any employee requesting accommodation should be taken seriously. But as you read the profiles of those most likely to suffer from “intermittant explosive disorder,” you conclude that they will rarely request any such accommodation. They are often narcissistic. They tend to blame others for their problems. They avoid responsibility for their actions. And their remorse, while often acute, does not prevent them from repeating bad behaviors in the future. It is comparable to the husband who gets drunk, beats his wife, and then assures her it will never happen again. My advice to wives in that situation is get out immediately and don’t look back. My advice to employers is essentially the same. Violent or threatening employees should be terminated immediately. If you’re going to err, lean toward the OSHA side, not toward the ADA.
On the other hand, you just might encounter an employee who loses his temper and then makes a sincere effort to get help. He might even bring a note from a doctor! These borderline situations are the most difficult for managers to judge. If you decide to give the employee a second chance, make sure you coordinate closely with the treating professionals, train and support your supervisors, and establish a short leash for the employee, with clearly defined parameters and boundaries. It’s not easy, but that’s why managers make the big bucks.
A good resource on workplace violence can be found here (PDF). Published by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, this document outlines an approach that is both comprehensive and reasonable, with useful checklists and detailed procedures for managing potentially violent employees. Although published before the promulgation of the new diagnosis for uncontrollable rage, the document is still quite useful. Just because we have a fancy new name for workers with ungoverned tempers, that doesn’t mean we now have to sit back and passively accept their abuse.