When an apparently suicidal pilot flew his plane into the side of a mountain, he killed 150 people, and devastated the lives of those who loved them.
The pilot, Andreas Lubitz, did online research into suicide methods in the days leading up to the fatal flight. Lubitz battled depression for years, relapsed with severe depression and stress in late 2014, and concealed recent medical leave notes declaring him unfit for work.
An Anchorage man who called me asking what it took to claim a “hostile environment” shares many characteristics with Lubitz. He battles depression, received a diagnosis of manic depression when 30, and told his coworker friends he’d thought about suicide in his early twenties. Two months ago, he made a decision to stop taking his medication in favor of off-the-shelf vitamin pills. Since then, he’s had a hard time controlling his mood swings and outbursts during his manic phase.
Until the plane crash, his co-workers supported his efforts to free himself from medication. Since then, his presence in the workplace scares several of them.
“What if you go off your rocker and do something nuts?” a formerly friendly co-worker asked him last week.
He wants his employer to discipline this coworker for his “mocking question.” He asked if his employer could call me.
“Sure,” I said, and started researching.
His challenge, and that of his coworkers and his employers, may be all too common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 9.6 million adults showed signs of serious mental illness and an estimated 16 million adults, or 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults, had at least one major depressive episode in 2012.
The employer of the man who called needs to protect this employee from a hostile environment, defined as harassment a reasonable person would consider abusive or intimidating and frequent or severe enough to permeate his work environment and interfere with his ability to perform his job. The caller declared his going off his medications was “his business” and was angry that his coworkers didn’t take his “outbursts in stride.” His employer needs to decide where the rights of their mentally ill employee end and the rights of his coworkers begin.
A landmark case, Wills v. Superior Court of Orange County, provides guidance to employers. Wills told a coworker who made her angry that she planned to add him to her Kill Bill list, referring to a female assassin movie, and sent coworkers threatening emails and videos. Her employer investigated the situation and — despite Wills’ doctor stating that while Wills suffered from bipolar disorder she wouldn’t endanger her coworkers — fired Wills. Wills sued.
The court found that the Americans with Disabilities Act protected Wills and her mental disability-related misconduct. At the same time, it ruled in favor of the employer, noticing that Wills’ threats and violent behavior placed her employer on a “razor’s edge” between violating Wills’ rights as a disabled employee and her coworkers’ right to a safe work environment. Since Wills’ employer had a policy prohibiting violence, the court noted that the employer could discipline even an ADA-protected employee for threatening or committing violence, thus violating workplace conduct standards.
There is, however, a significant difference between actual threats and coworker suspicions or worries. In another landmark case, Gambini v. Total Renal Care, the employer terminated Gambini after her outburst frightened her coworkers, and Gambini won her wrongful termination lawsuit, in part because she hadn’t made a threat. Although nothing in the ADA prevents an employer from maintaining a workplace free of violence or threats of violence, employers can’t discriminate against a disabled employee or allow one to be harassed.
Clear cut? Not at all. While the man who called me accurately said his decision to go off his medication was personal, his employer governs the workplace and can and should address his outbursts. Lubitz made no advance threat, yet, in hindsight, putting him at the controls of a plane enabled him to kill. The employer has a duty to protect the rights of a mentally ill employee and simultaneously protect the safety of that employee and others.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.