How Does A Business Owner Decide About Disclosing A Serious Medical Condition?
Who to tell about your health condition in a business setting, and when, is situational, and up to you. There is no right or wrong.
The one given is that it is better to think about this subject sooner rather than later so you can minimize any potential adverse effect. Also keep in mind that the greater the secret, the greater the stress which accompanies keeping a secret. (For tips about dealing with stress, click here.)
If you decide to disclose your condition, try to anticipate people's reactions. Also decide how much you do, or do not, want to tell people.
The decision about disclosing becomes easier if you break it down into the following three steps:
Step One: Why disclose?
There is no obligation to tell anyone about your medical condition -- unless you or your condition could cause harm.
- The stress you may feel from keeping a secret and what that could do to your immune system. Studies show that stress can lower the immune system.
- How to explain prolonged absences or difficult side effects from drugs or treatments or the condition.
- How to explain physical changes.
Step Two: Who to tell.
Your decision doesn't have to be a global one -- you can separate people by category such as employees, customers, suppliers. Or you can decide one by one.
What you cannot do is:
- Take back the knowledge once you tell someone.
- Keep anyone from telling other people. Even people in the Human Resources Department who are supposed to keep this kind of information confidential, may divulge it. (If you disclose the information to a person in HR, do it to the highest ranking person. She or he is likely to understand the law and take it seriously.)
- If you don't tell employees:
- How do you explain bad days?
- How do you keep a secret in an office setting?
- Is your calendar on line for everyone to see?
- In a small office, where people are aware of each other's coming and going, how will you be able to keep them from knowing?
- If you do tell your employees:
- How will it affect their job performance, if at all?
- Will they leave?
- What about new employees? Do you tell people you're interviewing to come work for you? Consider whether your health condition is relevant to a new employee if you're not dying and if the business can survive substantially as is without you.
- If you don't tell employees:
- Does your partnership agreement require you to tell your partner(s)? Do you feel you need to ethically?
- How will you explain your absences? The medications? Any physical changes?
- If you don't have a partnership or buy/sell agreement, discuss the disclosure question with your attorney when you discuss whether to put a buy/sell arrangement in place. (See What Happens After Your Death.) Many buy/sell agreements are triggered on disability as well as death, and that the definition for "disability" can vary.
- Board Members
- Check with your corporate attorney to find out if there an obligation to tell board members.
- If not a legal one, is there an ethical obligation?
- Check with your attorney. Is there a legal obligation to tell shareholders? An ethical one?
- Will your current customers think of taking their business elsewhere on reasoning such as: "All things being equal, I'd rather deal with someone I "Know" will be here tomorrow"?
- Will new customer/patient/clients stay away?
- Check your loan agreements. Does your medical condition fit the definition of changes in your business that have to be reported?
- Will you need money to make up for a shortfall because of your intermittent absence?
- Banks are prohibited from considering your medical condition when making loans. Your local disease specific non-profit organization, or people in a support group, may know what happens in reality with particular banks.
- In a small business, your medical condition can be used as an excuse for delaying payment.
- Your medical condition can be used as a club to help with collections. Be careful. If a debtor thinks you will die, or that repayment will not be diligently pursued, the information could backfire. A debtor could think: "Why should we pay you now?"
Step Three: When to tell.
Think about the alternatives and decide when is best to tell. Options include:
- A certain date.
- When a triggering event happens. For instance, if you start to lose your hair from a treatment, or if you begin to lose a lot of weight and look gaunt and sick, or gain a lot of weight.
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