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Home No. 70: The Rumor Mill Is Running, How Do I Shut it Down?

Apr 04

No. 70: The Rumor Mill Is Running, How Do I Shut it Down?

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The Rumor Mill Is Running, How Do I Shut it Down?

Reader question: I have a co-PI who went to rehab for alcoholism a week ago, and he will be there for a month in the middle of the semester. Since his sudden departure, the rumor mill has been working overtime, but no one knows the truth. As his friend and colleague, I field most of the questions. People have expressed concerns for his health, thinking he is gravely ill, and others are thinking that he’s run into trouble with the law. I don’t want to violate his confidentiality, but I don’t want to keep telling my staff that it’s none of anyone’s business, and I don’t want to lie. How should I handle the rumor mill on something like this where medical privacy seems to interfere with good staff communication?

Expert Comments: Your best option is to keep telling them to mind their own concerns, and repeat yourself if they persist. It sounds tough and you may not want to do it, but it’s your only option. There are good legal reasons for not talking, including the following:

  • At a university or most research institutions, human resources policy will require you to maintain confidentiality regarding any medical issues. If you break confidentiality, as a manager, you can get into hot water with your institution. So adhere to the policy.

  • If your institution has an Employee Assistance Program, your employer knows that he’s receiving treatment and will also have an aftercare program that involves re-entering the workplace. The EAP policies don’t include letting co-workers know a person is in recovery.

  • There are several factors that could implicate disclosure laws like state-specific laws and union protections that apply, and whether your institution is self-insured could impact disclosure rules.

In addition, there are potentially applicable federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records. HIPAA would apply if a health care provider, insurer, etc., maintains the medical record and has the disclosure issue. Likewise, the confidentiality law would apply only for substance abuse treatment providers and would prohibit their disclosure.

On the other hand, disclosure of any medical condition is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the ADA does not apply to current drug/alcohol use. And the courts have stated that the ADA applies only when there has been a long-term and permanent recovery from prior illicit drug use.

The bottom line is that you should not disclose that there is a substance abuse or medical issue, and maintain that it is a confidential employer/employee issue that is being monitored and assessed.

Ultimately, you can let staff know that he will be back at some approximate time, and they can talk to him then. Otherwise, you don’t feel that you should comment, and you’re not comfortable discussing his personal life. For example, you might say, “Thanks for your concern, but I’m not able to discuss that with you. He should be back in the office by the end of the month.”

Expert comments by Vincent Vecchio, Esq., who operates a private law practice in Hammonton, N.J.

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Comments (7)
Research Administrator in Recovery
written by Lee J., March 31, 2011
It's a difficult situation to be in. If these people are good friends, you're going to want to tell them. But legal and management issues aside, there is a recovery issue there, too.

Anonymity is, to paraphrase AA, the spiritual foundation of recovery. Your co-PI needs his anonymity for recovery -- or at least has the right to do with the anonymity of his recovery.

If everyone knows he went to rehab, others will know he is trying to recover, and that could interfere with his ability to do so. He has a right to not have any additional pressure on him.

No one has a right to blow the anonymity for a recovering person.
written by Victor, April 01, 2011
As in many other situations, there is no good solution. You are going to be vilified anyway. So, choose the least damaging option relying on your common sense (after all legal issues are met). If I were in your shoes, I would say something like, "Please, I beg for your understanding. This is a medical issue, I cannot disclose other person's medical issue, but he should be OK in the end. For those who is not satisfied with this answer, then yes, it's none of anyone's business".
written by Tom, April 04, 2011
I go for non-disclosure as well. If they are really close to this person, they can ask him themselves. If they are not close enough to ask themselves, then it is not their business.
When you tell them that it is a personal/medical issue, and you are not going to disclose it, they might be a bit pissed-off initially but, on reflection they will respect you more, because they know you would not betray their confidence if they found themselves in a difficult situation.
written by Robin, April 04, 2011
I would even leave out the bit about it being personal/medical. It's no one else's business period. How about something like this: I understand you're concerned and I understand it's natural to seek answers (optional). However, it's simply not my place to give out information regarding my colleague. I would ask you to respect both me and [colleague's name] by leaving it at that.
written by William Osler, April 05, 2011
You might want to address why the team wants to have further information. Gossips should be controlled but his absence may have an impact on his subordinates, post grad students etc. They may see their future in jeopardy. These fears would be best addressed within the bounds of the law.
Some may have legitmate concerns and not addressing them may be deconstructive to your lab.
written by Prof Wino, April 05, 2011
Yes, I've had my share, or more, of the grape and its products. But nobody so far had covered a key point: in the absence of positive factual (albeit "tenderized" or"smoothed") actual information pointing to the real situation, wilder exagerations could arise that might make the atmosphere even worse for the colleague's eventual return. To paraphrase: "Information abhors a vacuum". Alcoholism, though tragic, is mild, even " a dime a dozen", by the standards of today's TV and tabloids. It might be better to "plug the gap" with some silent handsignals of raising a cup to the lips, or pointing to a cocktail glass/beer bottle--instad of dead silence. Why? Because rumors will arise to fill the void. Will they be "child molestation a la Micheal Jackson", or "drug overdose per John Belushi, Linsey Lohan," etc. In today's climate, I suspect most researchers hearing "alcohol abuse" will yawn and say "Oh, I thought it was something SERIOUS, like heroin or child porn"--and get back to work. Cynical close: there is an "alcohol treatment" lobby making $$millions off ethanol, so they do not want it "downgraded" in the public eye. But contrarily, realistically, your associate may be welcomed back warmly, especially with widespread "subterra" knowledge of WHY he was "away".
written by Victor, April 06, 2011
To "Prof Wino":
Your concern is valid, but the bigger question is: is it possible (or even, is it practical) to erode societal principles (in our case, confidentiality) for the sake of short-term improvement of the situation for some particular person(s)? You kill rumors at the outset (or maybe not: like "birthers", quite many people will continue to suspect that the administration admits alcoholism, but hides something worse, even if you show the official medical records). Now, what are the costs? The concept of privacy and confidentiality, as weak as it is already, will be compromised even more in public eyes. You breach it once, you will have to breach it always theresince. And, by the way, the alcohol addiction and eventually other types of vices will be trivialized more and more every time.
Some analogies here: Is it appropriate to negotiate with terrorists, hijackers or pirates? We all know the right answer, NO, but still keep negotiating with predictable consequences. Or, should we support illegal immigration, taking into account the plight of poor people and our economic needs of cheap labor? As a price, we create the atmosphere of lawlesness and speed up the erosion of a civic society. Or, what about legalizing drugs just because too many people are using them and there is no reasonable hope to get rid of them altogether?

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