Should You Tell Your Boss About Your ADHD?

Legal and professional considerations for adults with ADD who are seeking ADHD accommodations at work.

Woman with ADHD talking to boss about diagnosis in sunfilled office
Woman with ADHD talking to boss about diagnosis in sunfilled office

When a client asks, “Should I tell my boss about my ADHD?” my answer is almost always “No.” Many ADHD adults who have just received their diagnosis are so relieved and elated to know-finally-the source of their symptoms that sharing the news of their diagnosis with the world seems like a natural, liberating thing to do. They tell family, friends, and the boss, often believing that the big guy will tolerate their tardiness or missed deadlines now that he knows what’s causing them.

The problem is, the boss might not. Not everyone is positive or knowledgeable about ADHD, and you don’t want your boss thinking you are making excuses. Even if he does know about the condition, he may not have the time, resources, or inclination to help you overcome workplace shortcomings.

The better option is to take steps to improve your performance without telling the company that you have the condition. You can often correct some of your workplace deficiencies on your own-by using a planner or programming your iPhone to alert you to deadlines. Or you can ask your boss for help, without handing him a doctor’s note saying you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. Most bosses and companies are eager to accommodate an employee’s request, if you can show how the change will enhance your performance. What boss worth his bonus doesn’t want to get more work out of his staff?

The following step-by-step plan will help you get services at work without having to spill the beans. It will also help you manage a meeting with your employer if it does become necessary to disclose your condition.

Identify Your Needs

First, look over your job responsibilities and assess the problems you have in meeting them. Is there anything you can do about it? One of my clients, who had been diagnosed as having ADD, was late for work two or three times a week. He considered asking his boss for flex time, but didn’t know how the request would be received, since no one else in the office worked on a flexible schedule.

When he discussed his lateness with his sister, she offered to make wake-up calls. She phoned him every morning, five minutes after his alarm clock went off, and stayed on the line until he stepped into the shower. The wake-up calls worked even better after his sister began giving him a “get-to-bed” call, as well.

Your workplace problems may require more extensive strategies, including some outsourcing. An ADHD coach, for instance, could help you develop a weekly to-do list or call you every day at work to keep you on task. A professional organizer could organize your office papers and files on Saturday, when no one else is around. If writing memos or press releases is difficult, take an online course in business writing or enroll at a local community college.

Going One-on-One with the Boss

If such measures don’t improve your performance-or you require help you can’t afford-ask your employer for help. When considering such a request, remember that it must be “reasonable.” If you work for a small nonprofit, requesting a software program that costs $500 is out of line. If you work for a law firm that bills your time at $250 or more per hour, ask away! Here’s how to arrange and conduct a one-on-one:

1. Set it up. Stick your head in your boss’s office and say, “I’d like some time to talk with you about my performance and about how I can do better. I enjoy my job, and I think that, with your support, I can become more productive.” Confirm the meeting time and agenda with an e-mail. Make it short, listing your performance goals, not the requests you will make to meet those goals. Save those for the meeting.

2. Be prepared. Decide on one or two accommodations that will help you do a better job. Have sound, persuasive reasons as to why, for instance, telecommuting will increase your productivity. Use numbers and specifics to make your case: “Working at home one day a week would allow me to get next month’s reports done two weeks ahead of deadline.”

3. Establish the right tone. Make your requests for accommodations at work from a position of strength. Use positive statements, such as, “I work best in a quiet environment. A noise-blocking headset would allow me to finish my reports sooner.” Don’t say, “Those reports take forever, because I have a hard time paying attention. I need a noise-blocking headset.” Make a request, not a demand.

Language matters, too. Talk about problems-in time management, organization, meeting deadlines-and possible solutions in business terms. Avoid the A-word, accommodation, unless you’re prepared to disclose your condition.

At the end of the meeting, summarize the discussion and the agreements that have been reached, to make sure you and your boss see the situation the same way.

My client, Andrea, who chose not to disclose her ADD, worked long hours at a public-relations firm, and she still missed deadlines. She was a perfectionist, and she was often sidetracked by small details. Her solution? She requested more frequent check-ins with her boss-morning phone meetings-to keep her on track. The five-minute chats allowed the boss to re-direct Andrea’s efforts when she veered off course.

Despite your best efforts, your boss may deny your request. If so, consider purchasing the items you need yourself. If, say, an expensive noise-blocking headset will save your job, it is an excellent investment to make in this tough economy.

When You Should Disclose

The only good reason for disclosure is when your efforts at getting accommodations have failed. If you fear that you without an accommodating change or service, disclosure may be necessary.

One thing you should know: A ADHD diagnosis alone, does not entitle an employee to services and/or accommodations. You must disclose your documented diagnosis, and show that ADHD “substantially limits a major life activity”-in this case, your job. Formal requests for an accommodation must be made in writing, and the accommodation(s) you ask for shouldn’t place an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. In order to seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you need to show that you are otherwise qualified to perform the job, and the company you work for must have at least 15 employees.

Disclosure under these circumstances should be carefully thought through. What if you disclose your condition and the accommodations you seek are considered unreasonable and are not granted? The law states that an employer must try to make “reasonable accommodations,” but employer and employee often disagree about what “reasonable” is.

One way to increase the odds of your getting an accommodation is to avoid the “perceived threat,” which puts a company’s executives and human resources on the defensive. If a boss hears the words “disability” and the “American Disabilities Act” in the same sentence, he or she will suspect that you’ll be filing a lawsuit. To succeed on the job, you want your company working with you, not against you.

Let the boss or human resources know, nicely, that you need XYZ because you have ADD (a disability)-and that you would work more efficiently if you got XYZ. At this point, don’t mention the ADA.

Preventive Disclosure

Some of my clients have used preventive disclosure when telling the boss about their condition. When setting up the meeting, ask if an ADHD coach may attend the meeting, to educate the boss about ADHD symptoms and to answer questions. I’ve found that preventive disclosure will increase the odds that your boss will see ADHD in a positive light.

One of my clients, an attorney, disclosed her ADHD, and then asked her boss if I could attend her performance review to answer questions about the condition. After our meeting, the boss agreed that she could move from a noisy cubicle to a smaller, quieter office, with a door, that was currently being used for storage. She had asked to use this space before, and her boss had denied her request. When I explained the causes and symptoms of ADD, the boss changed his mind and granted her the new office.

Legal Action

If your boss refuses to grant accommodations, are you willing to take your company to court? Those who have pursued this course, whether they won or lost, will tell you that litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally taxing. Before making a decision, seek advice and counsel from legal experts, and talk with someone who has gone through litigation. Most employees with ADHD would prefer to resign and look for another job rather than litigate with an intractable management.

I believe that no one should disclose his ADHD diagnosis unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. I’m lucky-in my line of work, I know that I won’t be treated unfairly or discriminated against because of my ADD. If anything, it’s an asset.

ADHD is still not widely understood or accepted in and outside of the workplace. But if we accept ourselves for who we are, we’ve got a good chance of being happy, no matter what challenges we face.

Winning Without Disclosing

One ADDitude reader, a paralegal, solved her problems at the workplace by meeting with her immediate supervisor. Anxiety over her poor performance caused her stress, and she knew she had to take action. Understandably, she did not want to divulge too much or disclose the reason for her poor performance, nor did she have to.

She admitted that she was having problems, and sought ideas from her supervisor to help her work smarter. In doing so, she demonstrated her intent to excel at her job and correct deficiencies. Nothing was said about her ADD.
The feedback from the meeting enabled her to do a better job and relieved her anxiety. An unexpected benefit was being able to get a good night’s sleep, which sharpened her concentration at work.

Common Workplace Accommodations

— Flex time
— Telecommuting
— Voice recorder, for meetings
— Noise-blocking headset or room dividers
— Spell-check or grammar-check software
— Training for new aspects of the job
— Office with a door, or an enclosed workspace, to reduce distractions
— Color-coded office supplies
— Cubicle in a less busy / noisy area
— Written instructions / e-mail reminders
— Help / advice on breaking down large projects into smaller pieces
— Timer / alarm
— White noise machine
— Printed cards with work procedures / instructions or workflow maps
— Talking calculator
— More frequent performance reviews / regular feedback
— Daytimer or electronic planner
— Short, frequent breaks
— Mentor or job-coach assistance

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