December 12, 2011

To tell or not to tell: Disclosure in the workplace

Know your rights before talking about your addiction with colleagues

Claire Parins
In many Twelve Step programs, being open and honest about addiction is a very good thing. But just how open and honest should you be in the workplace? According to experts, there are definitely times when keeping quiet about your recovery is advisable, both to protect your job and your recovery.
It’s Personal
Janet Piper Voss, executive director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, says what to disclose at work about addiction is a personal choice, and she believes the answer will depend in part on where a person is in his or her recovery process. “People who have been in recovery for a while seem to be more secure and less afraid of job loss than people who are new to recovery,” Voss says. “For them, disclosure is probably perfectly fine.”
But for those who are new to the process, disclosure might result in negative emotions, such as shame, that can impact recovery. “Feelings of vulnerability, while uncomfortable, are natural,” Voss says. “And disclosing too much too soon could exacerbate those feelings.”
Robin Belleau, a clinical director who works with Voss, adds, “The person in recovery is the best gauge about what to disclose.” Not only is Belleau a licensed clinical professional counselor, but she is also a lawyer. Speaking as an attorney, her recommendation is not to disclose. She says that though the attention on celebrity addiction and other mental health issues have made it easier to talk about addiction, there’s still a stigma associated with it, and it is best to be cautious about what one shares at work.
Some in recovery agree. One woman, who asked not to be named, says rigorous honesty as it relates to recovery does not require full disclosure. “For me, there is no reason to disclose at work except to help another alcoholic recover,” she says. “But in practical terms, active alcoholics or drug users are liable to blow my anonymity.”
She believes that if her recovery from addiction were disclosed in her workplace, it would raise all sorts of unnecessary questions from others because of the stigma of alcoholism. “Even though I have been sober for 15 years, I have no doubt there are people in my organization that might use the information as ammunition against me.”
Laws Don’t Protect from Stigma
Michael Cohen, a recovering addict and the director of Florida’s Lawyers Assistance Program, has made it his mission to help others who are struggling with addiction. He says that just because laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might protect you doesn’t mean you should disclose. Even though he is in recovery himself, Cohen says if he were starting a firm and interviewing someone who told him she was very recently in treatment, that fact might affect how he compared her to a pool of equally qualified candidates.
Voss, Belleau and Cohen all agree that however fair or unfair, stigma surrounding addiction should at least make those in recovery take pause before offering up personal information.
According to Renée Popovits, a nationally recognized specialist in privacy and confidentiality law who also serves as general counsel to several major behavioral health providers, the laws around substance use treatment information are complex. “It is important to take exceptional care to protect the privacy of those seeking treatment,” Popovits says. She believes addiction treatment patients and their families still feel the stigma and discrimination just as they did when Congress adopted the federal Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records law back in 1972.
She adds that though legal protections exist in laws such as the ADA and other state and federal statutes, the protections are not designed to protect those in recovery. She believes lawmakers should think about creating a new law that protects those who seek treatment and still offers providers an easy way to share medical information.
Instead of mandating patient consent, which often requires full disclosure of a patient’s medical history, Popovits would like lawmakers to consider a law that allows partial consent of basic information when full disclosure is unnecessary.
For the patient coming out of treatment, Popovits’ advice on whether to disclose details about recovery varies, depending on the kind of job he or she is in. “If it’s a drug-free workplace or treatment was a condition to remain employed,” she says, “it’s probably a good idea to consent. But there is a delicate balance between privacy and giving employers enough information to return to work.”
Popovits recommends that those in recovery who are returning to work after treatment or who are embarking on a recovery program on their own check out the Legal Action Center’s Know Your Rights brochure. The brochure is written for non-lawyers and provides general guidance about the federal laws protecting individuals with alcohol and drug addictions.
It outlines who is protected, what illegal discrimination is and what kinds of things employers can and cannot do at various stages of the employment relationship, which is useful information at any stage in the recovery process. To learn more about these protections and to download the brochure, go to
Claire Parins is an editorial director for the American Bar Association’s Publishing Services Group and helped develop the newsletter for the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. She has a passion for helping others and knows firsthand the rewards of watching many of her family members recover. She is licensed to practice law in Illinois.

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