Cancer and the ADA: A Primer for Managers


When an employee tells you they have cancer, your first response probably isn't, "Oh, I need to check the ADA!" That is good because it shouldn't be. But understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 should be at the top of your mind.


With consistent strides being made in cancer treatment, being diagnosed with cancer doesn't mean your employee will not work. It is more likely that your employee will work while getting treatment and will need some accommodations.


What Is The ADA?


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a law that helps protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. This act may cover a person with cancer. The ADA ensures that a disabled employee has the opportunity to do the essential parts of their job with reasonable accommodations.


So, when your employee has cancer, DO NOT start taking projects off their plate just because they told you they have cancer! It's a common and incorrect response that can lower morale, builds team resentment, and set the stage for discrimination.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?


They are adjustments to a job that allow an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of that job. Think of reasonable accommodations as things that allow the employee with cancer to do the same work as an employee who does not have cancer.


A few examples of reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Restructuring a job

  • Changing work schedules

  • Adjusting or modifying tests, training materials, or policies


Do we need to offer reasonable accommodations?


An employer must accommodate a qualified employee unless the employer can show that making the accommodation would be challenging or cause "undue hardship" on the company. But you don't assess this alone. That is why you go to your HR/People team/consultant to ask questions!


Accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis. The is no one accommodations to fit all accommodations. (I wanted to say, "There is no one accommodation to rule them all!" for all the Lord of Rings fans out there!)


Can I Still Fire an Employee If The ADA protects them?

Yes, but to avoid a possible lawsuit, be sure to have documentation to prove it was a performance issue and not because the employee had cancer and made everyone else around them feel uncomfortable. You can lay off an employee with cancer if they are part of several layoffs.


Do I Need to Lower The Job Requirements?


No, and please don't. It could be a bit insulting to the employee with cancer! But you can't suddenly raise them either unless you have documentation of the plans to do so before there was a cancer diagnosis.


The employee must meet your job requirements, including education, employment experience, skills, or required licenses. The employee must be able to perform the job's essential functions with reasonable accommodation or on their own.



What If My Employee Doesn't Ask for Accommodations?


You are only required to accommodate those disabilities you are aware of and that don't cause too much hardship. The person with cancer usually triggers the accommodation.


If the employee doesn't suggest what kind of accommodation they need, get with HR and work with them to identify one. Many public and private resources can provide help without cost. One is listed below.


Can I Ask About the Kind Of Cancer They Have Or The Severity Of Their Side Effects?


No! Unless the employee volunteers the information, you can't ask if they have cancer!


But you can ask about their ability to perform specific job tasks. You can ask your employee how they intend to perform their duties while managing the "condition."


Do Managers Have to Provide All Accommodations Requested?


No. The ADA provides companies with flexibility when it comes to reasonable accommodations. For instance:

  • Your company can choose among effective accommodations and don't always have to provide the employee's accommodation.

  • You are not required to provide personal-use items that are needed for reasonable accommodations.

  • You do not need to remove essential functions, create new jobs, or lower production standards to accommodate anyone.


Do Accommodations Have the Come Out of Our Budget?


Generally, yes. Yours or the company's budget! Remember, you must provide accommodations unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the business.


And there you have it—a primer for you, the manager managing an employee with cancer. Determining how the ADA applies to your situation is NOT a one-person job. Talk to your HR department, reach out to the resource listed below, do some research, call me. But before you take any action, make sure to run your planned conversation and steps by an HR professional to be sure that you aren't inadvertently breaking any laws!


And remember the most crucial step in managing an employee with cancer! Open and frequent conversations. Cancer changes everything, and how you work together is one of them.


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