When to tell boss about crime, illness

Unless it's unavoidable, say little, experts advise

October 19, 2003|By T. Shawn Taylor | T. Shawn Taylor,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - It was easy for one midlevel manager to conceal two prior driving-under-the-influence convictions from his boss because he didn't do jail time and drove to work every day.

But a third charge of driving under the influence, an automatic felony in Illinois, led to suspension of his driver's license and could mean jail this time - and subsequent job loss.

"His employer doesn't know about it and he doesn't have a duty to disclose it. But if he serves significant jail time, it'll come out," Chicago attorney Terrence LeFevour said about a client. "He's an excellent employee, but it's funny how people react to any allegation of criminal impropriety."

In society, being convicted of a crime carries a stigma, whether it's for a DUI, domestic battery or shoplifting. In the workplace, a run-in with the law is embarrassing to the individual, but it may be to the company as well - and can lead to a loss of trust, credibility or the job itself.

For those reasons, people who run afoul of the law go to great lengths to hide that fact from their employer. You can hardly blame them.

"If you're not legally required to tell your employer, you probably shouldn't tell your employer," said Marina London, vice president of operations for Longview Associates, an employee assistance provider in White Plains, N.Y.

But sometimes the truth comes out anyway. If one person at work knows, word gets around the office. The employee's name might appear in the police blotter in the local newspaper. Workers who need time off for trial or to complete a community service or prison sentence probably often have to come clean.

Whether they are able to keep their jobs depends on several factors, including the severity of the crime, the amount of time the person will be off work and how valued the person is as an employee.

"It depends on how much it impacts the workplace. If the crime is job-related, [employers] have a right to know," said Lynn Lieber, chief executive officer for Workplace Answers, a San Francisco company specializing in employer compliance training.

For instance, an employer might fire a school bus driver over a DUI or child molestation charge, for obvious reasons. The majority of states are "at-will" states, which means employers can terminate workers for almost any reason. But most employers deal with these kinds of issues case by case.

"If a receptionist gets a DUI, that's different than if someone who drives a forklift gets a DUI. But how much they need to know comes down to attendance. You still have to call your employer and tell them why you're not there," Lieber said.

Making that call from jail is not an unlikely prospect. About one of every 37 Americans has spent time in jail, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Terri Hoehne, director of human resources at Aurora (Ill.) University, who has had experience dealing with employees who need time off work to deal with mental or legal issues, said all hope of protecting one's privacy and employment is not lost.

"Employees need to know that they have alternatives. They are not necessarily going to be fired," Hoehne said.

Many employers offer treatment for recovering alcoholics and for people addicted to prescription drugs. If the condition falls within the definition of "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the worker may be entitled to paid medical leave while undergoing treatment.

The ADA also covers some workers who suffer from a mental or emotional impairment if the condition limits a substantial life activity, such as getting out of bed or dressing themselves. While their circumstances are clearly different from those of convicted criminals, these workers also may be stigmatized at work, and many try desperately to hide their condition from their employer. Here, too, concealment becomes harder - if not impossible - if the person requires time off from work or special accommodations by the employer.

Just because someone has a mental condition doesn't mean he or she doesn't want to or shouldn't work, say experts, who warn employers against playing doctor and recommend instead relying on physician recommendations.

"We try to push it off on the doctors as much as possible," said Lieber, of Workplace Answers. "As an employer, I don't want to know too much about this person's condition. I just want to know if they can perform the job."

Employees with mental health issues should avoid revealing more than is necessary about their condition, said London, of Longview Associates, the employee assistance provider.

"Even if you have a very compassionate manager, how are you going to feel that this manager knows all this personal stuff about you?" she said.

If maintaining privacy is of great concern, workers who need time off should seek it under the Family Medical Leave Act, which entitles workers to up to 12 weeks of leave and requires less documentation, because it's unpaid leave, than a paid leave request under the ADA.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.