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Recently I found myself in a situation where I just had no idea what the best course of action could be.

I went back to my old workplace to get some paperwork done. While I was waiting for the person I needed to be available, I talked with a new worker there. She ended up asking me about one of my colleagues, who was still working there.

She asked me if this colleague had always been so weird, and when I asked for details, she explained to me that he sometimes did "weird things" with his hands. One time that really stuck with her was when she came in the office, and, from the back, she could have swore that he was touching himself.

When I was working there, I happened to overhear a conversation between him and a manager, and he is apparently suffering from the Alien hand syndrome.

So I was stuck with two options:

  1. Tell her about his illness, so that she could understand his behavior, and avoid judging him. The problem is, I don't think I have the right to disclose any personal information without their permission. Plus if he wanted others to know about it, he would have disclosed it himself.
  2. Not tell her about it. The problem with that is that it could cause a lot of problems in their working relationship, cause tension, or even cause him to lose his job.

Since I am no longer working there, I decided to stay out of it, and told her that I never paid too much attention.

But that kind of situation could very well happen in my current or future workplaces.

If that was the case should I disclose the illness to prevent misunderstandings? Or is it really completely unethical, and none of my business?

All of this happened in France by the way.

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    Why is challenging her presumptions not an option? Something along the lines of "It's possible that he has a hidden disability, a situation many people face. Perhaps we shouldn't jump to conclusions here give the lack of information." – casperOne May 25 at 17:14
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    Hi @ChaseRyanTaylor and welcome to the site. We try to keep comments focused on improving the post (e.g. requests for clarification). If you want to discuss the question, a better place to do that is The Workplace Chat. We get a lot of discussions in comments and they tend to get long, which makes it harder to find the things that the author needs to address. I'm deleting your comments here, but I do encourage you to visit our chat room. Thanks. – Monica Cellio May 28 at 3:01

10 Answers 10

154

As a person with "hidden" disabilities myself, I would appreciate if, instead of telling her (you would probably unintentionally communicate a botched version of my disability and how it affects me at work), you let me know (in private) that "When I used to work here I overheard you and manager discussing your problems with X, I have now heard that some people are saying Y. Maybe it would be better if you disclosed X to avoid misunderstandings and wrong impressions."

Thereby you give your colleague a chance to make his own decision on what to share (or not at all), but still do your part in preventing misunderstanding. Just be gentle about it.

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    While I agree the colleague should have his own chance to make the decision to disclose their disability, does this not put added pressure on the situation and force a person to disclose their hidden disability? To me, it seems to create a situation of "disclose this" or "continue to be misunderstood"? Which in a workplace, I'm sure no one wants to feel othered, excluded or silently judged. – knocked loose May 24 at 17:45
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    @knockedloose That situation already exists, doing this would only make him aware of it. – Douglas May 24 at 19:55
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    I would drop the last sentence, “Maybe it would be better if you disclosed…”. It is polite to inform the person of the situation, but leave it at that. The person with the disability is a mature adult and can choose for themselves how to handle it. And, likely not their first time at this rodeo. – Basil Bourque May 25 at 16:00
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    Thanks for your answer, this is indeed what I should have done from the beginning, I had the occasion to chat with him, and to tell him about it, he was a bit annoyed that I overheard something I should not have, but overall was pleased that I took the time to tell him about the situation. – user3399 May 27 at 9:54
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    Reacting while skimming through threads: As someone with "hidden" disabilities, would you have been okay with your colleague saying something along the lines of "He/she has valid reasons that are not mine to disclose and you have misinterpreted." ? That doesn't reveal per se the problem and leave a lot of questionning, but this seems like the least invasive way of defending your coworker. – Nyakouai May 28 at 8:11
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I'd say, you should not try to disclose any information you're not supposed to know, in first place.

In this case, however, you can do some good with the knowledge, question is "how".

You mentioned,

I happened to overheard a conversation between him and a manager, and he is apparently suffering from the Alien hand syndrome.

So that manager has the knowledge of the problem and can explain / handle the situation better. What you should do, is to point the new employee to talk to that manager. Drop a subtle hint, that should do. Something like

"Hm, that's weird, I never heard any complaints like that when I worked here. However, I believe you can talk to X (that manager), he might know better as I believe they had worked together for quite sometime."

This way, you're indirectly vouching for that person (which would at least have a positive impression) for the time you worked there and pointing the new employee to someone who can actually help to resolve the confusion.

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    I'm not sure the manager would find this normal if the employee went to him to ask questions about the behavior of the other colleague. – IEatBagels May 24 at 18:50
  • I wouldn't say a specific condition. I'd rephrase as a more casual comment , "You might want to check with him, I think you'll find that's due to a medical condition, not that." Then tell your colleague what you heard them say, and what you have told them. That way if they ask or check, it's up to your colleague his much to tell, and if they don't ask, at least they will think twice knowing something medical might be relevant. – Stilez May 24 at 21:11
  • @Stilez One might get the idea the medical condition is touching oneself rather than the hand doing whatever it does. – AmiralPatate May 27 at 9:03
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There is a middle-ground option, though I'll leave it to your judgment if you think it's too close to just revealing the truth:

You can mention that disorders which would cause that behavior exist, without suggesting that you know someone has such a disorder.

In my observation people often react primarily to things being out of the ordinary, and not with a rational examination of why those unusual things might happen. This new worker would probably accept that medical conditions exist and might explain odd behavior, but instead is thinking in the other direction to suggest that the odd behavior simply indicates an odd person.

I think that your "I never paid much attention" response is great. You could naturally follow it up with something like

I wonder what might cause something like that. I've read that there are some medical conditions which might do it. I don't know, but I doubt [coworker X] would be touching himself in the office, that really doesn't sound like him.

This approach lets you acknowledge her experience without joining in and validating her view of the coworker as weird, while subtly hinting that a legitimate explanation for the behavior might exist.

This might be too close to revealing the truth for your preferences, but since you don't "officially" know I think it would be understood more as a possibility than you transmitting secret, definitely-true information. Often people just need to be reminded that disorders which cause unusual behaviors exist in order to back off a bit.

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    I like this approach because it also encourages people to have an open mind about unusual behaviour from other people in future. It's likely that we will meet several atypical people during our working life. – joeytwiddle May 27 at 4:34
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If that was the case should I disclose the illness to prevent misunderstandings ? or is it really completely unethical, and none of my business ?

No, yes, maybe (see below) - in that order.

Should you ever find yourself in a similar position in the future the best thing to do is to privately bring it to the attention of the person with the illness. That way they can decide whether they would rather clear up any misunderstanding by disclosing their condition or choose to let it go and keep the condition private.

It's totally not OK to disclose someone's medical conditions to third parties without their consent, unless seeking or obtaining the person's consent is impractical and there's an actual emergency that sort of thing.

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    Not only not OK, but frankly illegal in some places – George M May 24 at 21:08
  • Unless you're their guardian and they their doctor, or if it's an emergency, "It's totally not OK to disclose someone's medical conditions to third parties"... ever, full stop. +1 – Mazura May 25 at 0:16
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    I think telling people it is never acceptable to disclose such information "full stop" is a little excessive. There are many cases where it's perfectly reasonable, examples would include when that information is publicly available, when you've been given permission, when you're subject to a subpoena, when you are relaying your family medical history to your doctor... Also, not all medical conditions are equally important to keep confidential, for example peanut allergies. – Glen Pierce May 25 at 4:33
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    I agree with @GlenPierce. As a rule of thumb, you rarely encounter a rule whose scope is so narrow and whose implications are so trivial you can "ever, full stop" it (ethically, at least). Also note that, were you to come across such a rule, I'm fairly certain its simplicity wouldn't warrant any kind of discussion in the first place... – ccjmne May 25 at 16:01
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It doesn't really matter if you have privileged information or not. My answer would be the same in either case. I would say something like:

There are all sorts of reasons why someone's hands might be moving strangely. When I don't know the full context, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

This gently gives them a little guilt about gossiping, provides guidance for how to proceed, and doesn't even disclose that you know anything confidential, let alone hint at what that confidential information might be.

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Yeah, it's a tough one but you did leave in a get-out-of-jail-free card in your question: the person with the syndrome told his manager.

Tell her that if it really bothers her she should talk to her manager about the guy's behaviour. Management are aware of his condition and they should, if they are decent human beings (tall order, I know), be able to handle it in a delicate manner.

This is one of those circumstances where it is reasonable to pass the buck.

  • "a manager", not his manager, although that may be a translation error; OP said it was France. In any case, that person may also have left the company. I like your thinking though. – Justin May 24 at 11:15
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If you answer the question of this new employee in a professional manner you should use only this knowledge you are allowed to share. Some accidentially overheared talks are not included to this.

You say the ill employee is a former colleague of yours. So you would have experience with him. If you feel the need to defend him you can tell the new employee about his character, behavior and so on during the time you have worked together. Give examples showing the "strange but not dangerous" behavior of this hand...

If you want to give the new employee a advice "how to act professional if you are not there" you can send her to the manager. (That this may solve the information deficit of her is a nice side effect.)

(With a lot of "Fingerspitzengefühl" (LEO says: sure instinct/tact/intuition/flair) you could make a joke about some movie character with the same illness, but this is in almost all cases not suitable.)

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    I am not sure if your first sentence is totally accurate or complete. There are going to be lots of cases where someone is allowed to have information but still should not use it. The real issue is, are you in a position where you're allowed to disclose this information? For instance, if the OP had been the subject's medical provider, they would be allowed to have this information, but still not allowed to disclose it in a case like this. – dwizum May 24 at 13:03
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    @dwizum Good point. I try to improve this sentence. – Allerleirauh May 24 at 19:13
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If your old colleague wanted his co-workers to know about his condition, then he would tell them. Since he hasn't told them, he doesn't want them to know, so you should respect that and not say anything about his illness.

To the person you talked to, you might say something like "I know my ex-colleague very well. Because I know him so well, I can assure you one hundred percent that he was not touching himself. That's all I can say".

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I do not have the reputation to add this as comment to @Sourav Ghosh's answer, so adding as an answer.

New employee - N

Former Colleague - F

Manager - M

As mentioned in the question, since M knows about it and to avoid any awkwardness for F who is already suffering from the illness, I say, instead of telling N to talk to M, inform M, if it is a viable option, to talk to N or find any other way to have this situation addressed so that F does not have to go through this again.

That way, since this information is coming from the higher up, it has more value and s/he would know that the condition F is experiencing, has been acknowledged at the organization and not something you are making up to protect F.

Also, since you do not work there, you do not have to worry about thinking of this as going behind N's back. You're just trying to save the awkwardness for everyone and adding credibility about F's condition by having it addressed from the management.

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I think it is possible to address this without divulging anything too personal. When faced with the situation you describe, you could have responded:

"Oh, I believe he has a medical condition but I don't know the details. Maybe you could speak to them about it or ask their manager."

Saying that you don't know the details might be a white lie, but it would head off any follow-up questions they might be tempted to ask.

I have experienced this before many years ago, when I had made an unfortunate joke about a colleague, and someone told me they had a medical problem which obviously caused me some embarrassment, but meant I didn't question it any further and was more understanding about their behaviour.

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    I would be furious with an individual if they shared I had a medical condition with somebody I choose it to share that information with. The fact this individual doesn’t already know means the person with the condition hasn’t shared that knowledge with that person. – Donald May 24 at 15:21
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    I don't understand why anyone wouldn't know that it isn't anyone else's business or place to say anything about someone's illness, unless explicit permission is given. – user98768 May 25 at 0:21
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    Each to their own I suppose. Personally, given the choice between someone knowing I had an unspecified medical condition or thinking I just do "weird things" (to quote the OP), I'd take the former over the latter. – Will Appleby May 25 at 18:18
  • @WillAppleby If the person in question would prefer as you do, what prevents them to disclose it themselves? (hence why would you need to intervene?) – Sebi May 27 at 0:18
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    Perhaps they would if they knew someone was aware of their symptoms. The OP describes a conversation between two other parties that the person in question wasn't aware had happened, therefore how would they know someone needed to be told? – Will Appleby May 27 at 6:25

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