ADHD at Work

Should You Tell Your Boss About Your ADHD?

Legal and professional considerations for adults with ADHD who are seeking 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 adults with ADHD 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?

[Free Handout: Increase Your Productivity On the Job]

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 ADHD, 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.

[Personal Story: “Why I Won’t Disclose My ADHD at Work”]

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.

[How to Help Your Boss Help You]

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 ADHD, 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: An 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 ADHD (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 ADHD, 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 ADHD. 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 ADHD.

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

4 Related Links

    1. Dave, good for you and your friend Peter Shankman; you’ve found niches and strategies for your supercharged brains to succeed. Not all ADHD is created equal, not all workplaces/positions are ADHD-friendly, and the suggestion that a job that can’t value and embrace an ADHD employee’s strengths isn’t worth staying in absolutely reeks of all kinds of privilege. I do agree that apologies aren’t helpful. I’m currently debating whether or not to “come out” to someone I’ve been working for as an independent contractor since I lost my previous job, where I disclosed out of self-protection after my performance review was clearly hurting for ADHD-related reasons. “Coming out” probably did allow me to keep that job six months longer than I might otherwise have. Mr. Shankman’s statement that you’ll be better off if you get fired and sue your former employer for a big “payout” is incredibly naive. Yes, you might get a settlement; you will definitely blow up any possibility of goodwill with your former employer, which sometimes is worth preserving. Suing a boss is a bit like suing a landlord in terms of how future bosses and landlords feel about those details, which will eventually show up in a background check.

      We all have gifts that come with being neuro-atypical and should try to find opportunities to let them shine. I myself have hyperfocus superpowers which I’m still trying/learning to control (think Cyclops from X-Men!) but I will think twice or thrice before telling any future employers I have AD(H)D unless I know they’re educated about it, or I have no other good options for trying to keep my job.

      Full, honest disclosure would be something like this: “Hi! I have ADHD…it’s this condition that means I can do really, really awesome excellent work in in 2,3 or 4 times the amount time it would probably take another similarly qualified person to do competent, adequate work, and when I make mistakes they will almost always be filed under ‘ridiculously-obvious-how-could-you-not-have-known-that!??’ I promise, it will be totally worth it, even though the initial cost-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense and it’s guaranteed to be crazy-making sometimes – just ask my spouse.”

      I sincerely do respect your “ADHD is amazing” perspective but I’m in my mid-40s, I’m not there, have no idea when I’ll get there, and haven’t yet found a magic rainbow unicorn workplace that appreciates how amazing it is. I’m owning it and leaning in and working on strategies and still spending WAY too much time writing this reply {flames coming out of ears}…but at least it’s taken so long that my sense of humor has recharged in the meantime and/or I’ve lost all interest in being irritated. 😉

  1. My manager knows I have it and also knows I produce more output than anyone in the group. One issue I struggle with is the noise level in the office. No offense intended, but I work with all women, no men, and my coworkers will spend 20 minutes telling me where they bought their shoes. I DON’T CARE. LOL. I’m so goofy but at work, I want to work. I can’t stand chit chatting and there are so many in my group that obviously don’t have much work to do. I’m in a marketing group and it can feel like your surrounded by a bunch of cheerleaders. It makes me crazy. No one can possibly be so phony. One thing a friend of mine at work did was she made a sign for me to hang when I am on a project where I need to focus. I simply can’t focus with a lot of noise. I also can’t focus with music going so headphones aren’t the solution. It kind of sucks but I work my way around it.

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