CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 9/20/2013 | 50 comments

Sara Peters
Last weekend, Jerry Kill, head coach of the University of Minnesota's football team, had an epileptic seizure during a game -- not for the first time.

Since then, some people in the media and the general public have been calling for Kill to be fired. One of the most crass statements made in the press was by Jim Souhan of the Minnesota Star-Tribune who wrote that nobody who buys a ticket to a University of Minnesota football game "should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground." Although some people support Souhan, many people have criticized him, and the university stands by Coach Kill.

Nevertheless, as an epileptic, a journalist, a sports fan, and a former collegiate athlete myself, I am dismayed, to say the least. Seizures are a terrifying thing to witness, so I understand that people's immediate, instinctual reaction is to be frightened, be uncomfortable, and wish for a person with a seizure disorder to be shut away where you don't have to look at them. However, hiring and firing decisions cannot be immediate and instinctual; they must be intelligent and informed. Fortunately, the university has stood by their coach.

But this isn't just about football. What if this were a CIO? True, most CIOs aren't quite as high-profile as a college football coach, but they're no shrinking violets -- they may have to speak at live events like conferences, board meetings, and E2 radio and video shows. Would a company decide that someone with epilepsy cannot be a CIO? What about other executives?

This isn't just about epilepsy. There are other diseases and disorders that could cause a person to exhibit abnormal behavior. Our executive editor Curt Franklin gave me a perfect example. Years ago, during a meeting with representatives from another company, one of the gentlemen from that company began to say and do very peculiar things, including tying a tie around his head and spinning around in his swivel chair. Fortunately, two of the people on Curt's team had diabetes and recognized the behavior as an indication of dangerously low blood sugar. They acted fast and saved the man from what could have become a much worse medical emergency.

True, this gentleman's medical emergency caused a brief disruption in the business meeting, and Coach Kill's seizure caused a brief disruption in the game. However, these people were not working all alone. There were other coaches on the sidelines to calls plays and manage the game while Kill recovered. And there are other people on an executive team and an IT department who could temporarily fill in for the CIO.

Or could they? Must every CIO have public appearances be part of their job description or is that something that can be delegated to someone else, like a deputy CIO or IT director? Can CIOs make sure that someone on their staff is present and thoroughly prepared to take over a conversation in the event that the CIO is temporarily rendered unable to speak? Or is that an ineffective use of the staff member's time? Is greater teamwork a good way or a bad way to manage this problem?

Do we need to hold executives and other people who may serve as a public face for their organization to different health standards, especially when it comes to health problems that cause visible effects that make a person look different or unwell, even if they're physically capable of doing their job?

Well, hardly anyone is more visible than people who appear daily on national television. Yet when Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts got cancer, she left the show during her chemotherapy treatment but returned to national television before her hair had grown back in. When national sports commentator Ernie Johnson, Jr. got lymphoma years ago and had a very visible tumor, some viewers complained that it was difficult to look at Johnson, but Turner Broadcasting kept him on air anyway, until Johnson took a temporary leave to begin debilitating chemotherapy treatment.

By standing by their high-profile employees, these organizations create a "teaching moment" for the general public. Yesterday, Outside the Lines, a program on national sports network ESPN, did a fair and intelligent feature on epilepsy in sports. The feature has been applauded by many epilepsy awareness organizations (and by me) who hope that this dialogue will increase the public understanding of a widely misunderstood disorder. It was not long ago that epileptics were shut away in asylums, unable to work, even unable to wed -- I want to believe that those days are over.

It was, no doubt, difficult for Coach Kill to have a seizure and then answer a thousand questions about it. It was no doubt difficult for Ernie Johnson, Jr. to watch his life-threatening tumor grow on national television. It would no doubt be embarrassing for me to have a seizure in front of my co-workers or during a live E2 video show. It was, no doubt, embarrassing for the diabetic man in Curt's meeting... and shocking for his own co-workers, who knew nothing about his condition.

That raises another concern -- although people do have a right to their privacy, do they have a responsibility to tell their company when they have a health problem that could occasionally disrupt their work? What about shareholders? Google CEO Larry Page suffered from vocal chord paralysis that robbed him partially of his ability to speak and kept it hidden for some time before revealing it.

My co-workers know about my epilepsy and I told them how to respond in the uncommon event that I have a seizure in front of them. However, I confess that I did not share this information until months after I began the job. Was it irresponsible for me to wait that long?

My company has made life easier for me by allowing me to work from home (as all of the E2 editors do). They have allowed me to wear wigs on camera (since I lost my hair for unrelated reasons). They provide me the same number of paid sick days and temporary paid disability that all company employees are given.

Have they been too accommodating? Is the University of Minnesota being too accommodating? What kind of accommodations are reasonable for a CIO with health problems -- or other personal problems -- and what aren't?

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers from being discriminated against because of their disabilities, but when and how must a company come to the decision that the ailment renders an employee unable to perform their job? When should an employee themselves decide that they should leave their position for the sake of the company and/or their own health?

This is complicated stuff. I certainly don't claim to know the answers. But let's call this a teaching moment. Let's start a dialogue here, because one never knows when this may affect you directly. I'm eager to read your comments.

Also, many sincere thanks to Curt Franklin for his help with this story.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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tekedge   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/30/2013 8:15:24 PM
CIO & Health Too Sick to Hire
If the CIO has a disability I think he should make his team aware of it, so that they can step in when he has a problem and they are not shocked or unaware if they are suddenly faced with it.  I think the person himself should be responsible enough to know whether he can do his job efficiently and is not affecting his team.
Sara Peters   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/29/2013 7:05:47 PM
Re: Contingency
@shakeeb  Glad you agree! Good teamwork is invaluable even in the best of times, and even more important in the worst of times. On an only vaguely related note, do you think it's more likely to have good teamwork on a small team, a big team, or does it not matter?
shakeeb   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/29/2013 11:01:58 AM
Re: Contingency
@sara I agree with you. Team work is important despite of the situation as it will always help to be better.
sherly_mendoza   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/27/2013 4:53:30 AM
Re: Illness can strike at any time
Agree 100%! The most important thing is - and should always be - the ability of a person to perform his job well. If he is really qualified (or more than qualified!) for the job, why turn him away? Why rob him of the chance to share his knowledge and skills? Companies should not be too image conscious enough to deny someone his right to excel because he is sick! You are right, Kichecko, what needs to be done is make the employees and people around him aware so that they will know what to do when an emergency happens. 
Sara Peters   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/26/2013 6:29:01 PM
Re: Illness can strike at any time
@SaneIT  Aye, there's the rub:  "I don't see anything that suggests that if he had the condition under control that he isn't capable of being the job." The trouble is, his epilepsy isn't entirely "under control." Neither is mine. Medication helps but LOTS of epileptics' condition is only partly improved by medication; we're not seizure-free, and we might never be. So then you get to the question of how do you define "under control" and whose job is it to make that determination?

Sara Peters   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/26/2013 5:49:38 PM
Re: Too Sick to Hire
@Curt  I absolutely agree with you, that "the fear of watching a physical decline" is a major reason for ageism and other prejudices. And isn't that just preposterous and childish?

Sara Peters   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/26/2013 5:46:22 PM
Re: Illness can strike at any time
I'd like to thank all of you here for standing up for Coach Kill and other people who have illnesses like this. Once again I'm impressed by how kind the E2 community is.
kicheko   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/26/2013 3:59:23 PM
Re: Illness can strike at any time
Unless its a communicable disease --and these are usually very short term-- there's no reason to take someone off work. Terminal illnesses are not a reason to turn a person it cancer, HIV, diabetes etc. The only thing i expect is to be made aware because an emergency could arise and i need to first aid.
kstaron   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/26/2013 10:35:10 AM
Public face secondary to health
If people can do the job, health issues should not matter. All reasonable allowances should be made to help those who are working and dealing with either acute or chronic conditions. If they suffer from something that may affect them suddenly they likely should tell their company. but not for the reason of being temporarily unable to do their job, but because someone with them should know if something happens, they need to know what to do to save their life or help them through it. Making sure the message gets across in the boardroom seems a bit secondary after making sure everyone is ok.
SaneIT   CIOs & Health: Too Sick to Hire?   9/24/2013 7:27:04 AM
Re: Illness can strike at any time
I agree that suggesting he is fired is insulting at the very least.  I don't see anything that suggests that if he had the condition under control that he isn't capable of being the job.  I don't think that changes in the corporate world either.  As long as you can perform your regular duties an occasional down day is acceptable.  People get sick days and take time off for various reasons, a day of bad symptoms and needing time off doesn't seem like too much to ask.
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