Dear Ask Carla,
How much is too much information to give to an employer? I have so many personal things going on, sometimes I cannot manage to even get out of bed. Consequently, I miss a fair amount of work. My manager has hinted around about what is going on with me, but I always just present the doctor’s note and ignore the open ended questions. Should I tell my supervisor about my problems?
It’s easier to be forthcoming when you and your supervisor get along well; when you have an established track record; when your employer has policies that encourage openness; and when you’re already seeking aid (for example, Employee Assistance Program). It also helps if your problem can fit into a legally protected category and is entitled to protections under federal employment statutes. Many hidden disabilities are eligible for accommodation in the workplace. You may also have legal rights if you come out gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered at work.
If your problem is “protected”, your employer may be legally obligated to accommodate your disability to the point of “undue hardship.” Undue hardship means that the cost (that must be accurately set out and proven) to accommodate must be high enough that it would significantly interfere with the employer’s business. You will have to cooperate with the employer by providing timely medical information relating to your absence, possible return to work and any accommodation that you are requesting, based on an opinion of a medical professional. Every case is different. If you do not have a medical diagnosis, I would advise you to seek the proper help from a medical professional.
That said, if after speaking with a medical professional, you feel as if you must share the information with your supervisor, I would caution you to first be sure that the situation is something you should share. Before you divulge personal information, you need to ask yourself whether the details you are about to convey would be better left unsaid. If, after analyzing the matter beforehand, you find that you must express problems of a personal nature to your supervisor, then follow these steps to help you through the process.
Determine whether your personal problem will affect work. If so, consider the reasons why the situation will affect your work and focus your conversation around these points. Remember, generally there is no need to provide details about events that you want to keep private. But, it is important and useful to say that some personal events have happened that you are dealing with and that if you appear distracted or seem less productive, that is why. That provides your supervisor with a way to explain any change in your performance she may have noticed. In addition, you may discover that your supervisor is a more empathic individual than you expected.
Control your emotions and be cautious in what you say. When you make the decision to share a personal problem with your supervisor, you need to be sure that you refrain from causing a scene or displaying unnecessary emotions. Word travels fast around an office, so if you want to keep your private issues private, you need to be calm when discussing the problem.
Avoid asking your supervisor for advice. It is perfectly okay to express yourself and your problems, but you don’t need to put the supervisor in the unfortunate position of advising you about what to do in a personal matter. Remember, this person is your supervisor, not your closest friend. Keep your professionalism in check.
Ask for a leave of absence if necessary. If your problems are of a serious medical nature (whether physical or emotional), you could discuss temporary disability or a temporary leave of absence if your company allows for it. Sometimes, it is better to ask for leave than it is to tell your supervisor your entire life story and all of your drama.
Consider discussing the matter outside of the office at a business lunch. This can help you avoid office gossip and keep things professional at a public lunch meeting. Being in public also might stop you from gushing or crying.
Respect boundaries. You need to keep whatever you say to your supervisor professional. It would be easy to forget this if you allowed yourself to become too emotional. You need to remember at all times that this is not a personal relationship; it is a professional one.
Limit yourself to 30 minutes of conversation. Keep a close eye on your watch and be sure to stop yourself short if you get close to the 30-minute mark. You don’t need to express the history of your life. Just express the issues you’re confronting.
Let the matter rest. After discussing your problem with the supervisor, you should not discuss it again for a while. Give yourself and your employer time to digest the matter.
While you weigh your options on whether to conceal or reveal your current situation, I would strongly suggest that you reach out for help. Otherwise, things could worsen beyond your control. Before this happens, you may want to obtain legal advice from an employment lawyer on how to protect yourself. Then approach your supervisor or, if you have one, your HR department.
“The content contained in this article is intended to be for informational purposes only. You should seek the advice of your family doctor or other qualified provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding medical, mental or personal issues.”
Carla Lane is President and Chief Executive Officer of LaneStaffing, Inc. a multimillion dollar employment solution provider headquartered in Houston, Texas. She is also founder of This Woman’s Work, Inc. a non-profit organization that empowers women and girls by giving them access to career opportunities, programs and long-lasting mentoring relationships. Send your questions to email@example.com.
The statements in the preceding article are for informational purposes only and are the opinions of the author. They are not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.