Dilemma of the Month: When a Personal Matter Gets Professional

The less you trust your boss, the more honest you need to be

Back Article Mar 3, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas

I am an exempt employee and have been working at my company for just under three years. I recently had a serious medical issue that required me to terminate a pregnancy for my own health. I’ve now had three doctor visits in comparatively short succession, and my supervisor is asking why. Since this is an incredibly personal matter, I’m wondering how much I am required to disclose?

First of all, my condolences. You must be going through a very difficult time and having pressure from your boss isn’t helpful. What you have to disclose and what you should disclose are often two very different things, and the latter depends on your relationship with your boss.

Most bosses are extremely understanding of an employee who has a serious medical condition. You may be concerned about sharing medical information, but it’s possible that by keeping information secret, you’re causing more problems for yourself than if you speak up. Letting your boss know that you have a serious condition can relieve her mind. Sometimes, when an employee is secretive about their health, bosses can grow suspicious. It can make a boss think that you’re claiming illness but taking time off for non-legitimate reasons.

You don’t want your boss to think you’re cutting out early or coming in late because you’re slacking off. You actually benefit by your boss knowing it’s a health concern, rather than something else. If you’re missing work because you are having personal problems or health problems, most bosses will be more than willing to work with you.

Your boss is most likely simply concerned. If I had an employee who kept taking time off for doctor appointments, I’d be concerned. I’d be concerned if a friend was going to the doctor that often as well. A boss will be relieved that it’s medical and not something she has to deal with — like a performance issue. The repeated questions probably come from a place of genuine concern. If that’s the case, then answer according to the seriousness and what you need.

“I’ve been ill and had a few doctor’s appointments. Unfortunately, I’ll probably need a few more appointments over the next few weeks. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious!” Or: “I have a very serious medical condition, but I prefer not to discuss it. I’m going to need to schedule a few more appointments. I’ll try to do it so it’s not a burden on the other staff.”

The problem is, if your condition is serious enough that it required a pregnancy termination, it probably won’t be just a couple more appointments. You probably want legal protection. If your company has 50 or more employees, you qualify for the protection of the Family Medical Leave Act. This would provide you with protection for the time off you need for doctor’s appointments and to recover.

If your company has at least 15 employees, you’re entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under this act, pregnancy is considered a disability and your underlying condition may be considered a disability as well. Your doctor would know. While ADA doesn’t require companies to grant you a specific amount of time off, like FMLA, it does require companies to give you “reasonable accommodation” for your disability. Things like time off for appointments can generally be considered reasonable.

Both of these protections require paperwork filled out by you and your doctor. You can’t just announce, “Hey, I’ve got a disability!” This paperwork will, of course, contain information about your health. No one outside of the HR person who processes the paperwork should have to see or read it, but most companies are required by law to keep medical information confidential. They absolutely should keep it confidential, though, so this should not be a worry.

If your condition has now resolved and you don’t need any more appointments, you probably won’t want to disclose anything. But, if you’ll have more appointments or you need other accommodations, you probably should ask for the legal protections to which you are entitled.

Ironically, if your boss is likely to hold your medical condition or your pregnancy termination against you, it’s more critical to bring it up. If you don’t officially ask for the protections of the ADA or FMLA, you don’t qualify for them. Your boss can guess at what’s wrong with you and then fire you. Since the boss doesn’t officially know what’s wrong, you can’t claim you’re being fired for an illegal reason. The less rational and compassionate your boss is, the more you need to get legal protection by filling out the paperwork.

Regardless, take care of yourself. Make sure you do what your doctor tells you so you can recover.


Cary (not verified)March 9, 2016 - 4:35pm

Would it be possible to work with your Doctor to produce a letter that doesn't provide any details about your condition, but says that you had a medical condition that needed to be address hence the appointments? It could also add you will have a few more appointments (if that's the cases), but it won't be a ongoing issues (again if that's the case).

Also, it sucks that your getting pressure from your boss on top of needing to terminate. That's not a easy thing to have to deal with.

DC Ruele (not verified)March 9, 2016 - 11:19pm

How sad American women have to go through this. Most other developed countries offer no-questions asked leave for these kinds of medical issues.

Nathan Sparks (not verified)June 2, 2016 - 10:09pm

Well we used to disclose our personal matter to only people those are very close to our life, such as; friends, families and others. Most probably there are some problems that we can't disclose with anyone; especially in professional field as an employee I feel everyone were facing different types of problems and to deal with these problems we need a co-operative mate; in some cases bosses are also very helpful and understand the problems, especially in terms of medical issues.