Skip to main content

Managers Don’t Treat All Disabled Workers Alike


Employees with psychiatric disabilities are viewed as less capable than the physically disabled

Managers Don’t Treat All Disabled Workers Alike

At each stage of the employment cycle, people with disabilities face obstacles that undermine their workplace contributions. Their employment rates are much lower than for individuals without disabilities. And once they’re in jobs, managers expect their competence and performance to be lower than their peers, even though studies in various countries and settings consistently show disabled workers generally perform comparably to co-workers without disabilities. 

Below the surface, however, managers’ biases may differ depending on whether the disability is psychiatric or physical in nature. People with psychiatric disabilities, for example, encounter more negative evaluations than those who have physical disabilities. Studies have shown that job candidates with psychiatric disabilities are rated as less employable and less capable compared to candidates with physical disabilities.

A recent study focused on managerial prejudice against people with psychiatric and physical disabilities who were returning to work, as well as on management attitudes toward people with a pending diagnosis (where the nature of disability is not disclosed). The researchers anticipated that a pending diagnosis would protect a returning worker from potential negative stereotypes held by their manager.

What did the study find? 

• Employees with disclosed psychiatric disabilities were evaluated as more aggressive, less trustworthy and less committed to the organization than employees without disabilities. 

• Employees with disclosed psychiatric disabilities returning to work were perceived by managers as less committed to the organization than employees with physical disabilities. 

• Compared to employees with a disclosed disability, employees with a pending psychiatric diagnosis were perceived by managers as no more aggressive towards other employees and no less trustworthy or committed to the organization. 

How was the study designed?

Some 240 working managers were randomly assigned to one of three scenarios containing medical documentation for a fictional employee that disclosed either the employee’s psychiatric disability, physical disability or pending diagnosis. A control group received a version of the medical documentation that contained no information about a disability. The study focused on how managers evaluated employees’ social performance and anticipated work attitudes as they returned to work.

What do I need to know? 

There are two major takeaways from this study. One, the research provides further evidence that managers do not evaluate all disabilities in the same manner. They view employees with known psychiatric disabilities differently from employees with physical disabilities—at the very least, they assume the former will have a weaker commitment to the organization. This insight should be of interest to leaders and HR managers.

What might explain the different biases? The researchers behind this study point out that managers have been shown to make distinctions among employees with disabilities based on six dimensions. Two are key to understanding stereotypes associated with people with psychiatric disabilities: disruptiveness and danger. 

Disruptiveness is the extent to which a disability affects social interactions—a higher level of disruptiveness is associated with more negative stereotypes. Compared to those with physical disabilities, people who have cognitive-related disabilities are more likely to be perceived as more disruptive. Danger represents perceptions of threat to others. The researchers note that those who have threatening conditions, such as a psychiatric disability, “are more likely to evoke negative attitudes compared to those who have less threatening conditions, such as physical disabilities.”

The second takeaway is that employees may be wise to not disclose the nature of their disability when they return to work. By not sharing the type of disability, they have a better chance of avoiding the negative perceptions associated with psychiatric-based disabilities. While full disclosure would not necessarily affect their employment status—anti-discrimination laws are generally on their side—full disclosure could have negative consequences at work. If they’re perceived as aggressive as a result of their disability, they risk ostracism and social isolation. And if their commitment to the organization is implicitly questioned, they would likely not be considered for advancement.

This a legal grey zone in many jurisdictions. In Ontario, for example, the employer is obligated to accommodate employees with disabilities, and employees have a duty to provide medical information required by the employer in order to accommodate a return to work, such as reduced or flexible working hours or changes to the workspace. In the end, though, employees have the right to keep aspects of their medical information private. 

“While accommodating many types of disabilities may be required of managers, there seems to be a stigma attached to psychiatric disability that does not exist for most managerial evaluations of employees with physical disabilities or those with pending diagnoses,” the researchers conclude. “Using the pending diagnosis label may therefore be appropriate when there is concern that disclosing a psychiatric disability could engender prejudice from stigma but also meeting requirements for return-to-work accommodation.” 

Study TitleEmployee disability disclosure and managerial prejudices in the return-to-work context

Authors: Zhanna Lyubykh (Haskayne School of Business); Nick Turner (Haskayne School of Business); Julian Barling (Smith School of Business); Tara C. Reich (King's Business School);  Samantha Batten (Queen’s University School of Policy Studies)

PublishedPersonnel Review (published online)