Covert Mental health cover-up operation gone wrong. Help!
December 5, 2007 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I was a part time student with a part time job. After a nervous breakdown, a brief stint in a mental hospital, and a cover-up to keep everything secret...I am in deep trouble with my job. Please help me unravel the mess.

Because of a mental health issue (better now via a doctor and medication), I dropped some courses that my employer paid for. The trouble is that my employer doesn't know that I dropped. I was an idiot for not telling them, but I was afraid to come clean to them about my mental health problems (and likely be fired anyway). They believe that I just stayed home “sick” for about a week.

The prof doesn’t know what happened to me either, but I dropped out of his course after missing a midterm (large impersonal uni). Would have likely failed his course anyway.

The drama is that my employer wants to contact my prof to run a workshop for my business. In which case, my web of lies would break down and balance in the world would be restored (ie, I’d be fired).

Do I come clean to my employer now (and be fired anyway), or try to get the professor to lie for me and cover it up (I don’t’ know him very well)? I can’t really afford to lose my job, but I feel stuck because of the stigma associated with mental health issues.

What can say to my professor to get him to help me out and not mention that I dropped?

No, this is not my best moment in my life and I am moving on. Any help is much appreciated, I know that I messed up badly.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think asking your prof to lie for you is going to work out well - it would likely just make things worse.
posted by sanko at 8:25 AM on December 5, 2007

Your boss wants to contact your professor independently? Not have you do it? In that case, just come clean. As a professional HR Specialist, I'm going to just go ahead and let you know that your boss cannot fire you for a mental health issue, however, he can fire you for dishonesty and technically stealing from the company since they paid for the courses which you dropped, therefore not receiving goods/services for payment on behalf of your employer.

Come clean. Web of lies is bad, getting caught in a web of lies is worse.
posted by banannafish at 8:27 AM on December 5, 2007

You're doing more than many by admitting your failures! I'm happy to hear you are getting the help you need.

Your best bet is the truth. Hopefully, your employer and former professor will recognize the great difficulty with which you have come forward. There may even be a chance to rectify your mistakes- how long ago did you take the courses? While in graduate school I lectured and found that we could change grades or incompletes and apply new grades to dropped and reinstated courses far past the published deadline (even years).

Be honest and admit what you've done to their faces. This is an admirable thing. Do not compound the problem with more lies. Good luck, dear.
posted by maya at 8:28 AM on December 5, 2007

You might get a better reaction from your employer than you think. For better or worse, you kind of did them a favor by not talking to them about your mental health problems. No HR dept wants to have to deal with those complications.

Dropping the course for that reason, and not wanting to explain that reason, is understandable. I wouldn't rule out being asked to reimburse the company for the cost of the course, but I'd be surprised if you got fired. So my advice is to own up.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:29 AM on December 5, 2007

In a large impersonal university, is the Prof even going to make a connection between you and the company? I'm not advocating that you continue the lie, but I'm not sure your Prof doing a workshop at the company would necessarily be its undoing either.
posted by COD at 9:33 AM on December 5, 2007

Why would it necessarily come out? It's easy to assume people are going to remember everything about things that happened in the past, but that's rarely the case. The professor might not even remember you, or at least might not remember the whole reason you dropped out. Even if he/she did, is it the sort of thing that would come up in casual conversation between the professor and someone at your business?

It's probably worth weighing up the risks and then choosing the route with the least potential stress.
posted by wackybrit at 9:35 AM on December 5, 2007

It's difficult to suggest a best course of action without knowing what exactly happened, or how long ago, or the size of the course, but I will say this: a professor you barely know is not going to lie to a third party for you. It is a breach of ethics which may jeopardize his own position, which he will be very hesitant to do. Moreover, professors at large universities are instructed to report mental health issues as soon as possible to prevent harmful behaviour, suicides, and the like.

Here's a question: do you still have access to the course resources (textbook, online materials, etc.)? If your employer finds out after all, you may be able to soften his reaction if you are able to demonstrate that you learned the course material despite dropping out. In the end, I would expect that the employer cares about the skills you were expected to learn in the course, not your grade.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:48 AM on December 5, 2007

Federal academic privacy laws prohibit release or discussion of your academic records, so unless you signed a FERPA release giving your workplace access to your academic record, this professor would be violating federal law if he were to reveal details of your performance to your employer. Of course, it might happen anyway.
posted by thirteenkiller at 9:53 AM on December 5, 2007

"Dropped the class" or "didn't show up" might not come under the heading of "academic performance". Also, the OP's employer is more likely to bring up the issue, I'd think, so yes, our OP here is going to have to come clean.
posted by amtho at 10:40 AM on December 5, 2007

Depending on how long ago you "took" this course and how, exactly, you dropped out of it, you may be able to reach some sort of deal with your professor. Most people understand that health issues (mental or otherwise) can interfere with one's education, and most people wouldn't hold that against you. Your professor may be willing to let you make up the work in some way, so that you can actually receive a grade in the course.

Again, it depends on the circumstances and the temperament of the professor, but it certainly would be worth asking him about it. It would then allow you to tell your boss that, while some issues got in the way of your completing the course on time, you are now working to complete it.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2007

OP, I think you should come clean to your employer about the course. No need to tell them why you dropped it - "personal issues" should suffice - but do offer to pay the fees. You should do this because they will eventually find out that you dropped the course, and because it's the honest thing to do. I seriously doubt that the prof will make a connection between you and the request to lead a workshop - this is probably your guilty, anxious side coming out, and does not reflect reality.
posted by sid at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2007

If I was amoral, I would tell the professor before hand that the company is contacting him because they think you took his course (do not mention that they paid for it). Tell him you had to drop his class and take a week off from work because of a mental health issue but you never told your work because you felt it was none of their business. Then ask him if he would mind either declining their invitation or not mentioning your participation in his class because you don't want them to asks questions and learn about your mental health issue. Make the whole thing sound to the professor like a noisy employer overreaching, rather than you lying to your employer.

But in reality I would just come clean because that is the ethical thing to do.
posted by Falconetti at 11:38 AM on December 5, 2007

Thirteenkiller is right about FERPA, and you have an advantage that most academics live in incessant fear of FERPA. To your disadvantage there's actually a LOT of exemptions in FERPA for what they call "directory exemption."

From my notes from a seminar some time back here's what's covered by directory exemption:

Includes name, addy, phone, email, major, degrees, class level, status, photo, dates of attendance, extracurr activities, date and place of birth, honors and awards, last college attended, weight & height of athletic members.

HOWEVER, you can opt-out of that. So if you want to continue to keep this a secret you can contact the university and ask them what their opt-out policy is. They have one, though odds are there's at best a few dozen students who have done it.

That said, if your employer ever asks for some validation you're going to be hard pressed not to allow it. If you can't repay them you might consider re-taking that class. It's not a perfect solution but you can at least then claim they got what they paid for.

That said, the actual teeth in FERPA are pretty slim from an individual's standpoint. In 1994 Gonzaga v Doe established that FERPA is not privately actionable, so the most you can do if you're wronged is complain to the Department of Education, who handled these things. The "death penalty" of FERPA is loss of federal money, but I have never heard of it happening. Usually the DoE asks for "clarification" and the matter doesn't go much further.

So if your prof were to spill the beans you'd have to go after him on some other basis, which you might find hard to do given that it would be the truth you're concerned about.
posted by phearlez at 11:50 AM on December 5, 2007

"I'm sorry, Boss, I forgot to tell you -- as a result that bad health problem I had a while back, I had to drop some classes. Remember, when I missed a week of work?"

"Actually, it is a personal medical problem and I don't feel comfortable discussing the details."
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:59 AM on December 5, 2007

The trouble is that my employer doesn't know that I dropped. I was an idiot for not telling them

Yep, you made a mistake. Tell the company that you dropped the classes and were too embarrassed to mention it at the time.

The whole mental health thing is a red herring -- nobody needs to know a thing about it except you.
posted by tkolar at 12:39 PM on December 5, 2007

Your mental health issues may be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities act or state law equivalents. If that is the case, it may be in your interest to tell your employer and university right now. You need to talk to a lawyer at an education or disability rights organization. They may have options you are unlikely to read on AskMe.

I hope that you feel no shame about your mental illness. If anything, the "cover-up" is what has caused this mess. Best of luck to you!
posted by ferdydurke at 1:50 PM on December 5, 2007

Come clean.

Have a private conversation with your boss show him records of your stay at the mental hospital (that you were there) if you think it would help. Tell him/her that amidst all of the drama that was going on in your life you made an additional bad decision by lying to them. You can mention that you were concerned about bearing the cost of the class and also (more importantly) embarassed and concerned about having to answer questions as to why you dropped.

Boss doesn't like you? I imagine that he/she may like you more with this bit of honesty. People can tell in their gut if people are being dishonest or are not straight. Already have a good relationship w/ your boss? You will probably have a better one. Trusting someone enough to share details like this and people rise to the occasion.

Boss' can do a lot of things - if they want to keep you they can make this disappear.

Really think about this before you do it. There is a *chance* it will get around. Are you ok with ultimately if it does? I think you may find it is not as bad as you think, most of us are just one step away from being committed as it is (seriously) and I think you will find empathy. If you are *not* ok with it possibly getting out I would get another job.

And yes, this is exactly what I would do if I were in your position and I am intensely private person.
posted by gnash at 7:24 PM on December 5, 2007

Nthing that you come clean, certainly with the professor, since as such a being I can say that I'd be completely sympathetic to your story and thrilled you were getting the help you needed now.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:34 PM on December 5, 2007

What croutonsupafreak said. Minimal information required. Just tell your boss (or even start with some random HR person) that you had to drop it because of that health problem you had. And since when you were feeling under the weather like that, you had to devote your limited energy to your work duties. You appreciated the opportunity and are sorry it didn't work out and are wondering what would be the best thing to do - repay them, retake it at your own expense, just catch up with the material on your own time...?

The only exception to my advice is if you're getting hints that they're fed up with your "flakiness" or "lethargy" (or however they think of it). In that case, this might be another straw on the camel's back. In which case, you might want to let them know you're aware you need to improve and are taking steps.

So, I am not in the "come clean" camp. You likely care about this a LOT more than your boss or the professor. I would not make a big deal of this to anyone. The professor probably wouldn't make the connection even IF your employer dropped your name. ("Hmmm Bob Smith, yes, I think I remember him, what section was he in?") There is no need to go to the Prof and say, "hey, if anyone asks about Bob Smith, I dropped for this super-secret and kind of embarrassing reason. I mean, I REALLY screwed up. But don't say anything, okay?" People drop classes for millions of reasons all the time. The only reason to tell them is to see if they'd maybe let you retake the second half of the material or sit in next semester whatever without paying again. Likewise, there is no reason to go to your boss and say "by the way, I dropped the class, not just for any old reason, but for this reason that's a REALLY BIG DEAL. I know I've been being a total screw-up but I'm trying to stop being one, please don't fire me." People with no mental health issues have had to drop classes too. So just focus on the key issue, you had to drop the course, what should you do?
posted by salvia at 8:29 PM on December 5, 2007

(Oh, by the way, I'm not saying that you or anyone else here is suggesting talking like I was imitating.)
posted by salvia at 9:32 PM on December 5, 2007

I almost didn't graduate college because of a number of mental health problems caused me to be unable to complete assignments in time for a particular class.

I came clean with the professor and after asking for a letter from my doctor, he let me finish the projects after the deadline, and I graduated.

It may be embarrassing to admit that you have the problems, but there isn't quite the stigma associated with mental health that there used to be, particularly with college students.

You have to come clean or you will have no hope of correcting the situation and it could really ruin things for you when trying to get jobs in the future.

Trust me, it is absolutely the best to tell the truth in this case.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 11:39 PM on December 5, 2007

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