Can You Fire Someone For Sleeping On The Job?

A few years ago, our front desk representative let a 20-something interviewee into the meeting room and advised her that the hiring manager would be there in just a minute. The hiring manager walked in not even five minutes later only to find her asleep with her head on the desk. The interviewee woke up an hour later and apologized for missing the interview. She was allowed another interview, in which she managed to stay wide-awake, and we actually ended up hiring her. Three months later, she resigned to seek medical attention after multiple instances of sleeping on the job. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder or a medical condition and over 1.2 million Americans suffer from it.

Give the employee a wakeup call?

When an employee is found sleeping on the job, it is the manager’s duty to ascertain the reason for the fatigue. Is it because of late-night partying or moonlighting? Is she suffering from a sleep disorder such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea? Is she prescribed to drugs or a medical procedure that leaves her exhausted? Is she suffering from work-related stress that makes it hard to sleep at night?

“I didn’t realize I had a problem until my manager practically pushed me to check if it could be a serious condition. Turns out, I’m not lazy…or high, as my co-workers think… I suffer from narcolepsy,” says Mathew, a social worker from Seattle.

If one of your employees has a sleeping disorder, it’s best to address it.

If an employee regularly nods off during meetings, you may want to let him or her record the gathering so he/she can refer to it later. Employees with sleep disorders may not produce work with the same rate of efficiency as others, though he or she might be able to produce the same results. By all means, employees with narcolepsy or sleep apnea, should not be around heavy or dangerous machinery and shouldn’t be driving.

The Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, offers suggestions you can use to accommodate employees with sleep disorders:

  • Reschedule for shorter or longer breaks, more frequent breaks.
  • Provide a device such as Nap Zapper to keep the employee alert.
  • Provide a flexible start time and end time.
  • Allow the employee to telecommute.
  • Restructure job role to only include core functions.
  • Allow the employee to record instruction or meetings.
  • Print out instructions on the workstation.
  • Allow additional training time.

There are other strategies such as allowing an employee with narcolepsy or sleep apnea to take short walks outside or catch a power nap. An employer cannot terminate an employee sleeping on the job if he or she failed to accommodate claim during the interview. Likewise, it is the employer’s responsibility to determine which jobs require accommodating employees with sleep disorders.

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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