Do Executives Have a Duty to Disclose Serious Medical Conditions?

Privacy rights of employees are a common topic.  But privacy rights of executives is a less frequent employment-law issue. The recent demand for presumptive Republic party candidate John McCain’s medical records, as well as the small flurry of excitement about Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ cancer diagnosis has put the topic in the headlines. 

The Trouble with steve jobs

There has been much talk in the news about Senator McCain’s health.    The talk centers around a melanoma McCain had removed in 2000.  So much attention has been devoted to the topic that the Senator has agreed to release his medical records.

The push for disclosure seems to be based on the argument that the electorate has a right to know the condition of a candidate’s health.  On one hand, the demand seems like a crude request to inspect the goods prior to purchase.  But, on the other hand, maybe inspection of health care records is the best we can get short of a warranty.

Employers are permitted to require a fitness-for-duty certification before allowing an employee to return to work following leave for medical reasons.  I can’t say I’m convinced but I can see the parallel.

The public demand for McCain’s health records raises interesting questions for employers.  Should CEOs and other top executives at large companies disclose to their organization that they have a serious illness?    

A Human Resources Executive Online discussed this question in the context of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ recently disclosed condition of pancreatic cancer.   Jobs told the board of directors and top leadership soon after being diagnosed in 2004.  After consulting with attorneys, the company decided against further release of the diagnosis. 

Jobs tried a variety of dietary and alternative medicine treatment options for nine months before turning to surgery.  It was only after he had undergone surgery successfully that he told employees about his illness.

CNN criticized Jobs’ decision not to disclose his condition, claiming that it put his company and his investors at risk.  And the story made the cover of the April 2008 edition of Fortune Magazine (pictured above).  But during the mid-1990’s, Intel CEO Andy Grove did not disclose his cancer diagnosis for a year without controversy. 

It raises an interesting question about the privacy rights of senior executives.  It also makes me wonder whether the news about Steve Jobs will trigger companies to include medical-condition disclosure provisions in executive employment agreements.

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