Employers shouldn’t demand employees trust them with private information without asking why so many do not
Two seemingly unrelated stories were published this week. In the first, a young woman claims she was denied employment by Emirates Airline because she has a history of depression. In the second, a local council has demanded all staff members notify management of any relationships between themselves, to avoid accusations of favouritism.
These are two different cases, involving very different employers, yet both show a similar culture of entitlement on behalf of employers towards employees. In America, employers in some states already have an entitlement to access private details about prospective employees, particularly if they are also the employee’s source of healthcare. In a world where digital advancements put private information at the fingertips of those who have means to find it, perhaps it’s time to finally take seriously the fact that privacy and liberty aren’t just things we need to protect from the state, but increasingly, something we need to protect from powerful private companies, and our employers, whether public or private.
Telling employees to notify their employer about any intimate relationships might not seem like a very invasive thing to ask, but it is by extension commanding a lot more information than just the name of a partner. It compels employees involved with a colleague to disclose their sexual orientation directly to their employer – something many employees still do not feel comfortable doing. It compels employees in polyamorous or open relationships and marriages outside of work to discuss the details of their relationship set up with their employer. It compels employees sexually involved with more than one colleague to discuss their ‘promiscuity’ with their employer – something which many people, particularly women, still find themselves judged for.
Let’s not pretend that all participants in all types of relationship get viewed and discussed in the same way. We all know how depressingly predictable the double standard still is between women with a sex life and men with a sex life. And let’s not pretend that everybody trusts their boss, either in terms of the conclusions they may draw themselves, or who they may ‘confidentially’ share the information with.
Of course, it’s technically illegal to discriminate against an employee for, say, having a same sex relationship. But it’s not illegal to develop a vague perception of someone as irresponsible or easy (women who have casual sex), or immature and indecisive (bisexuals), or volatile, irrational and weak (people who battle mental illness) and subconsciously factor these assumptions into the overall treatment, including that which directly relates to career development. This is the kind of thing that can be extremely hard to identify or pinpoint, because it is part of a broader tapestry of perception about an employee. So, it’s not surprising that some employees may prefer to not disclose information about their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex life, or mental health.
As the law stands, it may well be deemed entirely legal for a UAE employer like Emirates Airline to discriminate on the basis on mental health. The airline has been enigmatical about their reasoning, which leaves a very hard situation to speak up about or prove.
It is a common scenario: applicants are repeatedly finding themselves turned down for work, which may or may not be a result of anti-mental illness discrimination, so try not disclosing their mental health history, get accepted for a job, and then get in trouble or dismissed because they didn’t correctly disclose the mental illness. The applicant will, of course, be assured that they’re not facing discrimination for mental health or disability, but for failure to disclose. If that’s true, what are we to make of all the rejections where they do disclose? And why demand people disclose a part of their medical history at all?
The double standards around mental health issues like depression are enormous. When accessing state support – benefit or NHS counselling, for example – the slightest suggestion that you might be okay, really, can deem you fit for work and totally fine. So in order to access support – sometimes the very support that makes it possible for you to work at all in the first place – you must emphasise the very worst of your dark episodes. Yet at the same time, in applying for and holding on to jobs – sometimes through the very same Job Centre – you must hide your depression, because you have no guarantee that employers won’t form quiet, even subconscious, judgments about you for it. And if you don’t disclose the depression, and make them aware of it, well, that’s your fault too.
I’m reminded of a friend I had at school, who used to make casually homophobic jokes. When I eventually came out to her, she was insulted that I had kept it secret from her for so long.
If you want people to disclose things, then you need to be someone they can tell. When ‘slut,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘mental’ and ‘schizo’ get thrown around in casual conversations, including in workplaces, don’t be surprised if some employees occasionally call in with headaches rather than telling you they’re experiencing a depressive episode, or feel less than enthusiastic about having to inform their boss about a fling with a colleague. If it’s okay for the ‘World’s Favourite Airline’ to remove an offer of a job because the employee has a history of sporadic, situational depression, then don’t be surprised if your employees aren’t rushing to notify you of the full details of their mental health. You want the right to know about our personal lives? Earn it.