Work issue involving sobriety, odd expectation and saying "no."
September 17, 2023 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I need to know the best way to submit supporting medical info to my workplace after saying no to an extra job responsibility.

I want to keep the backstory short and get to my issue, but some background is needed here. As my username suggests, I have been sober for just about five years now. I had an alcohol abuse problem for decades that got worse and worse to the point that I was near death. Long, long story very short: something clicked in my head, and—combined with my amazing support network of loving family and friends— I got sober one day at my second medical detox. I value my sobriety over everything right now.

I changed careers over this. I burned out of a 20 year career as a creative in advertising. I hated it from the start and should have gotten out decades ago, but the money kept pulling me back in. I burned many bridges and did ugly things. I dropped out completely for a couple years. Then I got sober and worked for 3 years doing a job I loved for low pay. I have now returned to a similar duty as my old career in a much different environment.

I now work at a social services nonprofit. My title is "Marketing & Communications Manager" but my job is being the sole art director, designer and creative writer in the entire organization. Prior to me being there, the output of this place was extremely amateurish and extremely bad (I swear I'm trying to keep this short).

So I am very busy, but I like that I help people who need help, the hours are not long at all, and people are nice there. I like my new job a lot, and at age 52, I would like to stay here until I retire. Money isn't as-good as before, but it's good and I am comfortable. I feel good about the work I do.

Nonprofits hold Gala events. Ours is coming up soon. As I mentioned, I am the solo designer, art director, copywriter, social media creator, letter-writer, internal email writer, etc etc. I am very busy all the time. This Gala is coming up in about 8 weeks and I'm busy with that and a lot of other events that happen in the org, and getting the news out on social media about everything under the sun.

About three weeks ago, at a status meeting for this Gala it was casually mentioned that I would be the Stage Manager for the Gala night. I have no interest in stage management, I have never done stage management, I am not a technical person who is good at doing real-time anything and this freaked me out. The Gala will be an evening of speeches, videos, more speeches, and other multimedia things that have to be managed for timing by a Stage Manager.

Plus, BOOZE will be flowing freely at this Gala.

I emailed my junior boss and told him I have to decline as I have no experience or skills doing this kind of work, and that there are personal, private reasons why I have to decline. I said int he email that I am happy to talk about this in person!

Four days go by and I got a reply finally saying as Marketing & Communications guy, this falls under my responsibilities, the stage management is not a big deal and I should have talked to him in person about it. He said he was "frankly surprised because he didn't expect this kind of unprofessional behavior" from me. The email basically said I was stuck being a Stage Manager because it is my job.

At no time was being a stage manager ever mentioned in my interviews or in my job description. It's a small nonprofit: I understand "all hands on deck" but I instantly became a nervous wreck thinking about having to do this in a noisy gala where people are drinking all around me.

I emailed my long-time (wonderful) psychiatrist. She agreed that I should not have to do this and sent me a signed letter saying I had a long term alcohol abuse disorder that's been in remission for five years and that I should not be required to work in the presence of drinking. She added more to this, that I also suffer from anxiety and anxiety attacks (all true) and that I could not do this specific task for my own well being.

I finally was able to talk to my Senior boss about this. (My bosses are both overworked, often work remote and I do not see them regularly)... I told him my story (they knew I don't drink) but I told him my problem was extremely bad for many years, that it became life threatening for me. And mostly, that I am proud and happy about my sobriety. Above all: I want to maintain my sobriety and I cannot do this task during an evening surrounded by people getting progressively more and more drunk.

My boss is a nice guy. I respect him. He is very overworked but he lives for this place... a workaholic. I threw him for a loop with what I said. Mostly he was quiet and listened while I told him that I cannot do this Stage Manager thing as it threatens my well being. He did mutter something about how as a "Communications person" the stage management was part of my job and that this never came up at the interview! I immediately almost laughed and said "Bob, how the hell would this come up in an interview?" and he dropped that. I told him I had a letter from my psychiatrist (MD) and he kind of shook his head yes. I was babbling a bit at this point and I mentioned I can produce this letter and share it with HR. He (again) seemed sort of shocked and throw-off by this conversation and sort of shook his head "yes"... he asked if it was from my primary care physician (???) and I told him no, it's from my psychiatrist.

He said we'd have to "re evaluate what my duties will be that night" and I assured him I CAN AND WILL work the event, but I just cannot take on the Very Big and Stressful job of Stage Manager. I emphasized again that I hated to say NO and "it's not my job" but this is a manner of protecting my well-being. He said he understood and left it at that.

Since then (one week ago) nothing about this has come up. I have been continuing my job doing all the other things I do, been in meetings about the Gala, created new social media content about the Gala and my interactions with both bosses have been friendly and generally positive.

QUESTION: Do I print the letter and give it to HR? Should I email the letter to HR? Should I speak with the HR woman in charge (it's not a large organization) and give her a verbal outline about what happened and is happening? And ask her if she wants me to send her the letter?

Do I drop the whole thing unless something comes up again?

I don't know how to proceed. I want to protect myself as much as possible here. I'd rather not have my medical conditions all over the place, but I'm also not ashamed of myself. I am proud of what I overcame!

My work is received extremely well. I'm looked at as a bit of a wizard with my design skills and speed and my writing abilities.

What puts me in the best position here regarding this letter from my psychiatrist?

Thank you.
posted by SoberHighland to Work & Money (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Don't give a verbal outline to HR. Simply send them the letter. (HR is not there to talk to you, they are there to cover the organization's legal ass. They are also legally constrained as to what they can do with your private medical information.)

Then send an email to your junior and senior boss, ccing HR, stating plainly that you will not be working the Gala for a medical reason, and that you have provided documentation to HR.

What are they going to do, fire you? (Having *already* sent the letter to HR in advance of the Gala puts you in a much stronger legal position.)
posted by heatherlogan at 2:39 PM on September 17 [16 favorites]

Yes, this is an accommodation issue and so HR is the right way to tackle it. If possible, check what the accommodation process is if it's documented in a handbook or website - it may be that they need specific paperwork, not the letter you have, so you may as well find out what they need. The letter you have sounds like it may be too much detail, honestly, and you may make your own life harder by providing that much detail. Approach HR with the information needed to start an accommodation discussion, no more and no less.

Ask them what the process is from there, and follow it.
posted by Stacey at 2:52 PM on September 17 [7 favorites]

I agree that letter has too much information in it. They don't need the anxiety stuff; they may not even need the alcoholism specification. Find out what specific info you need to provide for a medical accommodation (if your workplace doesn't have an employee handbook then check your state's rules) and get your dr to draft exactly that; then provide to HR and proceed as per heatherlogan's suggestion above.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:58 PM on September 17 [18 favorites]

Big congratulations to you on your sobriety! That is such a major accomplishment, ask me how I know. Standing up for yourself to an uncaring manager an HR department is brave and admirable. I have made a very conscious Dr ion to never let my boss know my personal life and struggles. When I’ve needed time off I’ve said I have a chronic illness and have a doctors recommendation that I take time off. Nothing more. My boss will generally be a self serving know it all, but when I have told her I cannot work certain days ahead of time, she gets very chummy and probes. She couldn’t care less about me, and I’m fine with that, and I don’t cave into her fake concern. This has worked out well for me for six years. There is a shortage of workers who can do my job for the low pay I get, so she’s stuck needing to mind her manners and not bully me. Your junior boss is bullying you.
posted by waving at 4:12 PM on September 17 [8 favorites]

As a MarComm head, you should be able to hire somebody to stage manage, in the same way you'd hire sound guys or lighting people to work the gala. That's your contribution to ensuring the stage management part of the night goes off swimmingly. Yes, it's an expense, but there are lots of one-time expenses associated with hosting gala events and this is just going to have to be one of them this year (and maybe in the years to come). I'm sure there must be some sort of events production company who could be brought on to do the job, or a local theatre director who would be happy to pick up that kind of freelance assignment.

By hiring somebody you're not only protecting yourself and your own own health, but the organization and the event as a whole. You don't want somebody nervous acting as a stage manager, especially if they have no idea how to do the job. You want a pro who can make sure the event goes off without a hitch.
posted by sardonyx at 6:23 PM on September 17 [23 favorites]

I would also argue that as the head MarComm guy you shouldn't be behind the stage. You should be out talking to people, asking questions, building relationships, etc., you know, actually WORKING the event and being part of the public face of the event, not hiding behind the stage telling the lighting guy to move the spotlight or signalling to the musicians that it's time to play.
posted by sardonyx at 6:35 PM on September 17 [8 favorites]

Just noticing that your doctor said that you should not be required to work at events where alcohol is present. If that the doctor's recommendation, then you should expect your employer to manage this reasonable accommodation in the scope of your duties. If you are really OK working the event but being stage manager then you need to clarify with your psychiatrist what exactly is the accommodation that you need - having one thing in writing and then immediately compromising and giving up what your medical professional is recommending seems like a bad idea and one that really weakens your position. If you want to consideration for your anxiety diagnosis and panic attacks then again, think through what is the accommodation that you really need and ask for it - not just for being Stage Manager but more generally in terms of the scope of your responsibilities what other kinds of things do you need to be delegated to someone else.
posted by metahawk at 7:49 PM on September 17 [7 favorites]

Alcohol Abuse Disorder is recognized in the DSM. Psychiatric disabilities are covered under the ADA. I think you need help from a lawyer or ADA specialist to help you write a formal request for "reasonable accommodation" so that is part of the paper trail.

That said, I know professional stage managers and can say with certainty that this is a role requiring special skills. I would make a list of those skills, managing lighting/sound cues, overseeing crew, managing performers, etc. Emphasize the importance of having someone with experience doing this job and how a mistake could have a negative impact on the gala, total fundraising numbers, etc.

As the MarComm person I would expect you to he taking great photos that can be used the annual report and other materials, trying to run a show.
posted by brookeb at 8:52 PM on September 17 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Updating: This did indeed become an HR issue. The HR director contacted me the day after I posted this question and said this will be a Special Accommodations issue and I had to fill out paperwork about it. I mentioned in the paperwork that I had the letter, but she did not want the letter at that point. She DID ask me to briefly explain the issue to her, which I did. Now I'm second guessing if I even should have done that, and just left it as "I have a medical condition that keeps me from performing this duty on this night" and if she wanted more, I could have given her the letter.

I will update this thread as events unfold. Nothing retaliatory has come up so far, and I am continuing my work as before. Thanks to everyone who replied.
posted by SoberHighland at 10:12 AM on September 20

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