If you decide to disclose information about your diagnosis, the next thing you need to determine is who really needs to know. Then, start by talking to those people with whom you're the most comfortable or who will be most essential in creating a workable solution.
Telling your boss can be challenging, but doing so can prove very beneficial in the long run, because generally the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you only if you’ve made your employer aware of a medical condition. In other words, what your boss doesn’t know could wind up hurting you.
You may be pleasantly surprised by the reaction you get. A boss can turn out to be far more than just a supervisor — he/she can be a source of hope and encouragement and potentially act as a necessary advocate.
Your manager may have to share your diagnosis with his/her supervisor or with HR in order to make sure you have access to all legal benefits, company policies, etc. However, if you would rather that your information not be shared beyond these parties, be sure to communicate this.
For more help in approaching your supervisor, check out our Manager’s Kit.
Your boss may not be the only member of management who needs to know — especially if you are part of the management team. Because your supervisor may have to share information with management or anyone who will be affected, if you have good relationships with those managers, you might find it in your best interest to tell them yourself.
You may also want to talk directly to your human resources department — if your company has one — as they will have considerable information about company policies. They may also have experience dealing with other employees who are cancer survivors or who have had serious health conditions, in which case they may be able to offer valuable advice on how to tell people and what to expect.
Should you tell them? And if so, which ones? It’s impossible to provide guidelines that apply to everyone. The answer really depends on your company culture and the relationships you have with your coworkers (See “Consider the Culture,” on the Should You Tell page.)
What to Do When You Are the Employer
If you are one of the thousands of people who own their own business, you obviously don’t have to tell the boss. However, there is the equally difficult decision to be made about whether to tell your employees, which may be complicated by the fact that it’s not merely a personal issue — rather, it’s something that affects the morale and well-being of your company.
Even if you would like to keep quiet and avoid worrying your staff, look at the corporate culture you’ve worked so hard to create and consider how your treatment will fit into that environment. Think closely about how your absences or any changes in your appearance may affect your employees.
If you are regularly out of the office, drumming up business, entertaining clients or monitoring your company’s progress remotely from the comfort of your own home, it’s possible your employees will think nothing of your absences. When you’re in chemotherapy, they may assume you’re in your home office, crunching numbers. If it doesn’t affect their day-to-day duties and activities, there may be no reason to tell.
However, if you have a strong physical presence at your company, that could make it harder to say nothing. Employees who begin to notice your unusually frequent absences may worry. Even worse, they may talk about it, and before you know it rumors far worse than the truth are making their way around the office. If you think that could be the case, you may want to consider sharing your diagnosis with a trusted direct report and let that person handle explaining your absences in an agreed upon way.
Many business owners, however, pride themselves on creating a work environment based on transparency. If that’s the kind of culture you’ve fostered, then you probably have a close enough relationship with your employees to bring them together and share the news. They’ll appreciate your candidness as an expression of trust, and they’ll be grateful for the heads-up on what to expect and how it might affect them and the company. If you do choose to share, be sure to explicitly communicate what your preferences are in terms of how widely (or not) you want the news to spread — for example, just to additional staff or to external stakeholders, such as clients, board members and vendors.