By: Krystal M. Ray, PHR, SHRM-CP & Sara E. Choate, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
‘Tis the season of gatherings and cheer! Unfortunately, joy might not be all that is spreading. With winter, comes the seasonal sickness and other needs that might send employees to the doctor. In this situation and others, you may need to ask employees to provide a note from their doctor’s office or a ‘doctor’s note’. When asking for a doctor’s note, there are several best practices to keep in mind, including the following:
Be Consistent – Apply the same standards regarding when you decide to ask for a doctor’s note to all employees. For example, if you have an attendance policy that requires a doctor’s note to be excused for a health care appointment, all employees should be required to provide a note to have those absences excused, unless a prevailing reason exists (i.e., the employee is already approved for an absence under the Family Medical Leave Act or has a documented accommodation). Outside of a prevailing issue, there shouldn’t be different standards applied to the same employee group.
Request Only the Information Needed – A doctor’s note can range from a simple one-sentence statement to a detailed account, so when you ask for a doctor’s note, be sure to tell your employee what’s needed based on the circumstance.
Revisiting the example above, if you have an attendance policy that requires a doctor’s note, you likely only need verification the employee had an appointment. However, if you ask for a doctor’s note because an employee is returning to work after hospitalization, you’ll likely need more details, specifically when they may return to work and what, if any, restrictions are in place.
Asking only for the information needed can help prevent a perception that you inappropriately used medical information against the employee. Sometimes, knowing less is a protection in itself.
Don’t Require ‘No Restrictions’ – If you need a doctor’s note that speaks to an employee’s restrictions, refrain from requiring the employee to have ‘no restrictions’ before returning to work. Asking for ‘no restrictions’ may seem like a logical approach but doing so is contrary to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Keeping in mind that restrictions can cover a wide range of physical needs (including very minor to very limiting), requiring ‘no restrictions’ is simply too restrictive. Rather, when you ask the employee to provide a doctor’s note that speaks to what, if any, restrictions they may have, you’re able to compare the restrictions to the job and then make a decision based on what the job requires.
Coordinate With the Employee on Questions – If you have questions about what a doctor’s note means, be sure to follow-up with the employee. As the employer, (in a non-workers’ compensation situation) it’s generally not appropriate for you to coordinate directly with the doctor. Instead of contacting the doctor, let your employee know what’s not clear and ask them to coordinate with the doctor to provide an updated note. By taking this approach, you’re protecting yourself from receiving too much information and by having the employee provide written documentation, you’ll have a paper trail for the file.
File Medical Information Separately – As a medical record, doctor’s notes should be filed separate from the employee’s personnel file.
This information is not intended to be or replace legal advice.