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Employer invades my privacy
May 24, 2003

I have recently taken a short term disability leave from work due to a worsening of my AIDS-related condition. Although, my employer asked me what my disability was, I never disclosed its exact nature and asked that any information concerning my leave be kept confidential and shared only with those who have a true need to know. I did say that I have a disability as defined under ADA. Shortly thereafter, I heard from a former employee who was apparently contacted by one of the managers and was quizzed about my medical condition. He revealed nothing as he knew nothing about my illness. A few days ago, this same former co-worker forwarded me an e-mail from one of my manager's who wrote to him: " (my name) is still on a sick leave???!!! PARTNERS THINK IT IS SEXUALLY RELATED." This is verbatim, even the upper case. I don't know if my firm is in violation of any laws. It seems that they didn't breach my confidentiality because I never told them what my illness was. Frankly, I don't care if what they did is legal or not. It just does not sound right. I feel violated. And now, I'm supposed to go back to work there. I don't really want to. It is rather clear that they would rather I don't come back. Minor things, such as they cut off my network e-mail and took my name off the schedule on the same day they terminated other staff. Since it appears that they don't really want me back and neither do I want to go back there, do I have any bargaining base to negotiate a mutually beneficial exit strategy? I don't want to pursue legal action, nor do I think I can. They haven't really done anything wrong other than leaked their opinion on what might be the cause of my disability. Any ideas?

Response from Ms. Breuer

It feels wrong for a really good reason. It is wrong. And dumb. A wise employer who's been alerted to a disability does not want the diagnosis, since anything you know can be used against you in a charge of discrimination, which this person seems to be courting.

Insist on speaking in terms of "functional limitation" only. That means you never refer to the diagnosis, only to the work-related activities in which you are limited because of your diagnosis. "Partners" suggests to me that this might be a law firm. Is that the case? If so, double the intensity of my next suggestion: You have been violated, and you have been discriminated against. You are covered by the ADA. I suggest that you contact an attorney OUTSIDE the firm and hire him/her to write a clear letter about the situation as you see it, inviting the employer to rectify these errors so that no further action will be necessary. Do not slink away with your tail between your legs. You have done nothing wrong, and your instincts are great.

Please write to me again and let me know what has happened. A job is your link to benefits and income and lots of other good things in life. Don't give it up easily because of one person's sexual hangups and bigotry! (Can you tell how I feel about this?)

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