A fitness-for-duty evaluation (FFDE) is just what the term suggests, an evaluation of an individual’s fitness to do his or her job. In high-risk occupations, such as the police and public safety, the need for psychological suitability and fitness is generally established by statute or case law. In fact, some courts have held that agencies are required to assess an officer’s fitness when significant evidence suggests a lack of fitness.
The specifics of what constitutes fitness are defined, if they are defined, in very general terms, usually by state statute. The gist is that job holders should be free of psychological factors, traits, and problems that would prevent them from performing their duties safely and effectively. The specifics of how to assess the fitness of job incumbents and the decision-making standards have received limited research attention. Instead, the standards are based on the experience of police psychologists. The Psychological Services section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed guidelines for FFDEs. Their revised guidelines were published in 2004.
The first issue in FFDEs is whether an evaluation should be ordered. This issue is important because although the FFDE can be an important tool in protecting public safety, it has the potential for misuse. The current consensus, including the recommendation of the IACP, is that there should be objective evidence that the employee may be unable to adequately per-form the job and a legitimate basis for believing that the problems are due to psychological issues.
FFDEs are also being increasingly used in a variety of other occupations when concerns about potential violent behavior by an employee are said to raise concerns about the employee’s psychological fitness for duty. This use of FFDEs is more controversial and less clearly protected by statute or case law. The practice can be particularly problematic in the absence of clear written policies outlining the circumstances and procedures for fitness evaluations. Relevant legal concerns include violations of the Americans with Disability Act and the individual employee’s privacy rights. However, the practice can be important to defend an employer from “wrongful retention” or “negligent supervision” complaints when people are injured by violent employees.
For any occupation, experts agree that FFDEs should not be used as a substitute for the normal disciplinary process. However, employers may choose to use a psychological FFDE to mitigate discipline and develop rehabilitation or accommodation plans. It is best for this process to be outlined in the employer’s written policies.
The FFDE begins with a referral. This referral normally involves a written summary statement of the employer’s concerns and the evidence in support of those concerns. The referral also generally includes any specific issues the employer wishes to have addressed. It is best if the standards for triggering an FFDE and the process involved are in the employer’s written policy. When accepting referrals for FFDEs, ethical concerns require evaluators to consider whether there are any dual-relationship or conflict-of-interest issues that interfere with the evaluator’s ability to perform the evaluation competently and effectively.
The employer is normally considered the client in an FFDE, not the individual being evaluated. In most situations, employees referred for FFDEs are compelled to participate as a condition of employment. However, it is generally considered advisable to obtain the employee’s written informed consent for the evaluation and the communication of the results of the evaluation to the employer. When informed consent is not sought, evaluators are still ethically obligated to inform the individual being evaluated of the nature of the evaluation and the expected use of the obtained information.
FFDEs include psychological testing, clinical interviews, and collateral information to enable the evaluator to determine if the incumbent employee is able to safely and effectively perform the essential job duties of the position or specialty assignment. The psychological testing frequently includes an objective psychological measure designed to assess psychopathology and an objective psychological measure designed to identify psychological strengths and weaknesses in nonpathological populations. Many evaluators also include some sort of measure of cognitive functioning. This test selection is similar to that used in pre-employment evaluations. However, in FFDEs, additional measures designed to assess relevant issues or problems may be included. The collateral information includes the job description (including any additional requirements of specialty assignments), employment and medical records, reports from supervisors and coworkers, and reports from family members and friends.
When the FFDE is complete, the evaluator must communicate the results, usually to the employer or the employer’s legal representative. Many of the standards for what may be communicated to employers following an FFDE are regulated at the state level. Case law in some jurisdictions severely limits the information that evaluators may communicate to the employer without violating the employee’s privacy rights. Without the written consent of the individual being evaluated, evaluators need to exercise caution in communicating any information about the individual other than fitness for duty to the employer. Even with consent, only essential and relevant information should be included. If a lack of fitness involves confidential issues or other people (e.g., a health problem in an employee’s spouse), evaluators should ensure that the information communicated does not violate privacy standards in that jurisdiction.
Usually, the report will include an outline of the actions involved in the evaluation and the evaluator’s conclusion concerning the individual’s fitness for duty. The categories are fit for unrestricted duty, fit for restricted duty (which could include regular work activities with mandatory treatment), or unfit for any duty. Additionally, when the employee is unfit for unrestricted duty, it may be described as temporary or permanent. If the lack of fitness is temporary, recommendations for facilitating the return to fitness are appropriate. It is usually difficult to consider a psychological condition permanent without a treatment trial.
- Borum, R., Super, J., & Rand, M. (2003). Forensic assessment in high risk occupations. In I. B. Weiner (Series Ed.) & A. D. Goldstein (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of psychology: Vol. 11.Forensic psychology (pp. 133-148). New York: Wiley.
- IACP Police Psychological Services Section. (2004). Psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation guidelines. Alexandria, VA: Author.