Can I Refuse to Hire a Candidate Because They’re Left-Handed?
“I have been searching for a dental assistant and finally found someone and offered them the job. I just found out that he’s left-handed. I’m right-handed and each of my operatories are set up for right-handed dentistry. Do I still have to hire him?”
We have some great news for you (for a change) – no, you do not have to hire an employee because they are left-handed! Here at CEDR, we get some version of this question from our members a few times a year and people are always surprised that we’re able to give them the all-clear. We’re always cautioning employers about legal protections and risks in making certain decisions. So why is this so different?
This is where our cautionary note comes in – this is NOT the same thing as refusing to hire someone who has a medical issue with one of their hands (i.e. carpal tunnel). A medical issue and natural hand dominance are simply different things.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
If you have 15 or more employees, then the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to your practice. If you’re smaller, there may be a similar state or local law that applies.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against someone due to their disability – that would include refusing to hire someone because of a disability. It also requires that you provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities, which might mean purchasing ergonomic hand tools that enable them to do their job.
Left-handedness Is Not a Disability
Here’s the thing – left-handedness is not a disability! It’s not considered a mental or physical “impairment” since it’s simply a normal physical characteristic.
We know firsthand that left-handed people hate to hear that they can be refused a job on that basis. But they also agree that they are not — and would not want to be considered — “disabled” because of it.
At the end of the day, the ADA simply does not protect a left-hander’s right to a job. And, we’re not aware of any state or local law that protects left-handedness (or right-handedness, for that matter).
Be Careful About Right- or Left-Handedness That Is the Result of a Disability
Don’t make left- or right-handedness a requirement to apply for a position in your job ad!
If you say you only hire right-handed people, you may be excluding the most fabulous candidate out there who is technically left-handed but is ambidextrous and has been working in right-handed dentistry practices for years.
Or, you may be setting yourself up for a disability claim because your ad suggests you won’t consider accommodating someone who has some type of true disability related to their right hand.
Keep in mind that if someone comes to you and applies for a position and, for some reason, they do not have full use of their right hand (or if a limb is missing), then the ADA or any similar state disabilities law will come into play. You then have to determine if this individual is capable of performing their essential job duties, including whether they can do so with a reasonable accommodation.
How you go about making that decision is a longer conversation for another day. In the end, you may still make a decision to not hire them, but the concept that “left-handed” people are not protected goes out the window. Likewise, if a person becomes disabled while working for you, the ADA reasonable accommodation analysis comes into play again.
No one size fits all solution exists when you’re considering disabilities, so you will want to contact an expert in HR who has lots of experience to help you navigate the issues with the best of intentions, and also to protect your practice.
Still, you should take precautions when hiring so you don’t schedule a full patient load only to find out you and your new assistant can’t properly work together. There are lots of ways to address this.
In the interview, tell candidates that you’re only set up for right-handed dentistry and ask if they have any concerns about their ability to work in that setup. Or show them your operatory and ask if they are comfortable working there.
You can also ask applicants to perform a skills test (Note we said skills test, not working interview). Have them run through the operatory set up and even a fake procedure, which will require them to be in position to do the job. If any concerns are raised during any of this, bring them up. If they’re left-handed, find out to what extent they’d be able to perform their job duties considering your office setup. If there’s some other physical issue, then you can talk about accommodations.