Book Excerpt

Disclosure on the Job

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) signed into law in 1990 allows employees with disabilities to obtain modifications to their jobs so that they can be successful in the workplace alongside people who don’t have these kinds of challenges. The ADA applies to all State and local governmental units, and to private employers with fifteen or more employees.

The ADA defines a “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits the performance of one or more major life activities of an individual.” To request a reasonable accommodation, two criteria have to be met: first, the disability must be known or perceived by the employer. Second, granting the request cannot place an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

The question is whether or not you should disclose your diagnosis. My good friend who has schizophrenia and had a career as the CEO of a corporation disclosed only once and it backfired on him. The coworker he told used the knowledge of my friend’s illness to his political advantage. It cost my friend a promotion.

Disclosing your disability before you’re made a job offer can shut you out of a job. Only tell your employer after you’ve started the position.

The consensus among all the peers I’ve interviewed is that you shouldn’t disclose unless you’re confident you need a reasonable accommodation. Our feeling is that if you can do your job as well or better than the next person, it’s nobody’s business if you have a mental health condition. You do not disclose to your coworkers to obtain a modification. You submit the request to your HR department.

You should be comfortable with the information you give about your disability. Use the actual diagnosis, yet remember that you don’t have to reveal every single detail about your symptoms.

Focusing on your symptoms instead of strategies to combat them places you in a diagnostic box that is hard to get out of. Framing your request in terms of a functional limitation can be better. Act collaborative not confrontational when requesting a change to your job duties or other assistance.

It will go a long way and be better to talk about what medication, treatment, or resources you’re currently using to help you manage your condition. You will be viewed more favorably if you are positive and proactive in taking the right action so that you can function.

Here’s what could be an effective sample request to ask of the HR person at your company: “I’d like to exceed your expectations for what I can do on the job. Right now, I’m having a hard time with _________ (list function). This is because I have _________ (state diagnosis). I’d like a modification so that I can continue to excel in my performance. Here’s what I think might be good: _________ (list a suitable change). What do you think?”

The HR person will ask for a letter from your doctor to document what your disability is. There’s no way around getting this on your doctor’s letterhead. Yet any reputable business that doesn’t want to run afoul of the law of the nation as regards the ADA shouldn’t balk when the letter is given. As long as the letter was written and signed by an actual doctor your employer will have to consider giving you the accommodation.

If you fake a letter on letterhead you cut-and-paste from the internet with a bogus signature of a non-existent M.D., you will be found out. The HR person will call the doctor to verify the details.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) lists numerous accommodations by disability from A to Z. Some hardships experienced include maintaining stamina throughout the work day, managing time pressure and deadlines, initiating interpersonal contact, focusing on multiple tasks simultaneously, and responding to negative feedback.

You have to use judgment about what’s appropriate to tell coworkers. It comes down to treating each other with respect. The key is to establish and keep boundaries between you and your coworkers. This is standard business protocol.