my mother’s boss is spreading a false rumor that my mom is dying

A reader writes:

I’m asking this on behalf of my mom, who’s currently undergoing chemo for treatable cancer. She’s back to work after surgery, and is getting her treatment every two weeks. She’s doing very well and looks completely healthy (no hair loss, that sort of thing) to an outsider.

Her boss, however, has spread a rumor to everyone (managers, staff, customers) that my mother is terminal which is not at all true. Her boss has tried to be my mother’s BFF for ages now, and even tried to shut me out of the hospital room after my mother’s surgery so she could tend to her every need. Bizarre.

But telling everyone she’s terminal? That’s just gross, and a huge violation of my mother’s privacy — but we’re sure it’s not *illegal* to spread such a disgusting rumor. What, if anything, can be done about this, though? She’s gotten other people fired when they were sick of her strange behavior in the past, so we’re sure she’d try to do the same for my mom, who really needs to keep her insurance right now.

What the hell? Your mother’s boss is … not right in the head.

I can think of two things your mom can try:

1. First, she could try talking to her boss and finding out what’s up. This doesn’t need to be confrontational at all — it could be as simple as saying in a confused tone, “Hey Jane, Coworker A and Client B thought they understood from you that my cancer is terminal” and then waiting to see what she says.

2. If she’s comfortable doing this, she could correct the record herself in a public way. For instance, if staff and customers know that she’s been out for cancer treatment and have sent her well wishes, she could send out a group email to them all, thanking them for their messages and letting them know that her prognosis is excellent and her doctors expect her to make a full recovery (or whatever is true and she’s willing to share).

By the way, is there any chance that your boss is telling people your mom is terminal because she’s scared that she is? Some people automatically assume the worst with cancer diagnoses and don’t handle them well at all, and it’s possible that what she’s sharing with people represents her own fears and anxieties. Not that that would make it okay, of course — it’s still unacceptable. But it’s possible that her behavior is rooted in fear, not just inexplicable false rumor-mongering.

What do others think?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 80 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    I think OP’s mother’s boss is making the drama all about her, and it’s a lot more dramatic for her if OP’s mother is terminal. I think this is the kind of investment that leads people to invent a dying kid online–it’s not Munchausen’s by proxy, but it’s heading down that same road.

    1. tinyradish*

      OP here – oh, the boss loves drama from what I can tell, and I think she’s just SOAKING in this and loving every hand-wringing “woe is me” moment of it.

      1. coconutwater*

        smells a bit like Histronic Personality Disorder….or maybe a mixture of Cluster B Soup?
        OP, I hope your Mom feels better soon and heals well in spite of having a boss spreading this false information.

    2. hrdir*

      I agree, I have a boss who is just like this and that is just what he/she does takes whatever situtation and makes it all about himself/herself. Also, my boss has a tendency to just flat out say things (true or not) to overdramazie the situation. If your mom’s boss is the same way, it won’t matter what your mom says, they never admit to being at falt. I belive it is known as narcissistic personality disorder. Speaking from experience opt for #2.

      1. Savvy Working Gal*

        OMG! Our HR manager is like this. She is always going on and on about her latest best friend who is dying of something. She is really kind of crazy. You should have seen her when I was going to be out for foot surgery – you’d have thought I was having my foot amputated. Seriously though, our President’s wife is currently being treated for cancer. She set up a caring bridge website where she keeps everyone updated on her status. Our President sent it to all employees. Her first post started with for those that are interested.. I would recommend your mother do something like this. Our HR manager still tries to act like she’s more in the know, but we’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring her.

    3. Littlemoose*

      Seconded (or sixth, or whatever). I bet the boss is telling non-work people the same thing (“my best friend at work is dying!”) because it garners her attention and makes her feel important.

    4. Jessa*

      Exactly, the boss is trying to garner sympathy it’s almost a kind of Munchausen’s by Proxy in that she’s not making someone actually ill, just saying they are so that she gets attention. Also all the “helping the OP’s Mom,” is all about “see how sacrificing I am? helping her so much, I even do more than her daughter (lie and also not asked to do this,) see how good and important I am, it’s all about ME.”

  2. AMG*

    Given the fact that she has shut the OP out of the room in the past, I am guessing that she wants to be the in-the-know, go-to person and so she is spreading information to everyone even if she has to make it up.

    It may also be that she is scared, or truly confused about the prognosis, but the need for drama and attention is probably driving Batty to behave like this.

    I think the way to handle it is exactly as Alison suggests. It may also help to give Batty a job so she doesn’t create her own. ‘Please tell everyone I’m doing well and I will be back in the office around XX date’ or something.

    1. fposte*

      I love the “giving her a job” notion. I think if you don’t give her a task she’s going to either find one or seethe, so this is a way to feed the monster enough to prevent its hunger.

  3. AJ-in-Memphis*

    I don’t know: HIPPA regulations come to mind. It could, in reality, be illegal. I wouldn’t worry about her keeping insurance either, the ACA will likely take care of that. Also:

    “Her boss has tried to be my mother’s BFF for ages now, and even tried to shut me out of the hospital room after my mother’s surgery so she could tend to her every need. Bizarre.”

    Your mother’s boss may have some real mental problem too. I wouldn’t deal with her directly on this, but instead go to her boss or HR (if they have one). She could also take the public stance like Alison said, maybe telling anyone who asks that she’s fine, etc…

    My mom had cancer too and if her boss had pulled something like this, I don’t know if I could be as rational as you. This is REALLY hard to deal with without the added drama. Hope it works out for her and you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      HIPAA is about what information your health care team can give out; it doesn’t affect what info your boss can give out (unless your boss is also your doctor).

      1. tinyradish*

        My first thought was HIPAA too, but then I realized that it wouldn’t likely fall under that because my mother’s doctor isn’t directly divulging information to the boss.

        1. Cathy*

          But HIPAA also involves your employer if you have insurance through them. It may well be that *as her employer* the boss is violating HIPAA by spreading news of her medical condition. I’ll have to do some research on this for future reference..

    2. Frieda*

      Maybe/maybe not on ACA. It has open enrollment just like every other health plan, and if she misses that she might have to wait until the following year.

      That being said, COBRA should allow her to continue her insurance for like 18 months after she is no longer at her job.

      1. mw*

        She would be able to apply for insurance through the Marketplace outside of the open enrollment period after a “qualifying event.” Loss of insurance through an employer would qualify.

        1. mw*

          Oh – I and don’t think it would matter if she resigned or if she was let go. The bottom line is that she won’t have access to insurance through her employer, therefore she’ll have a set time period during which she could enroll. I can’t remember the exact number of days.

          1. COT*

            Depending on her employer’s coverage, plans offered in the insurance exchange under ACA may still be more expensive. For instance, my employer covers about 75% of my premium for a plan offering very good coverage. Since my income is too high for me to qualify for tax subsidies, getting my own insurance (should I lose my job) would still be much more expensive than what I have now, if I wanted comparable coverage.

            The ACA is a great step forward (especially for people with pre-existing conditions like OP’s mother), but there’s no guarantee that the insurance available will be cheaper than what they already have.

            Just wanted to get that out there for people’s general knowledge!

            1. Verde*

              Keep in mind for calculation purposes that if you lost coverage due to no employment, your income would also go down quite a bit, therefore lowering your premiums through the Marketplace. It’s not a straight apples-to-apples comparison.

  4. Yup*

    Arg. Intrusive faux helpfulness is workplace peeve of mine, and makes me want to gag your mother’s boss with duct tape til she comprehends that it’s not all about her.

    Alison covered the bases. The only thing I’d add is whether your mother has any trustworthy coworkers that she could update about her condition? They could be her allies and help spread the word and squash the rumors when they crop up. Also, I find a cheery-but-puzzled tone helps when calling out people like this boss. “A few people mentioned that you said ABC? Actually, my treatments are going really well and the docs are thrilled. Thanks for being concerned!” Said with a gosh-I-can’t-imagine-how-you-got-that-idea-how-funny-the-world-is tone goes a long way in correcting the record without blowback.

    I’m sorry your mom has to deal with this weirdness, and I hope her treatment continues to go well.

  5. Gene*

    I would add some humor into #2. Something like, “To quote R D Laing, ‘Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent.’ My cancer diagnosis isn’t likely to kill me any time soon, but thank you for your concern.”

    1. tinyradish*

      That reply is actually right up her alley. She’s normally very strong and can handle anything with a quip – she’ll get a kick out of this one.

  6. A Teacher*

    Holy Yuck! This is totally crazy with a side of super crazy. It isn’t a HIPAA violation for the boss to share this–but mom does have the right to request that the boss be kept out of the plan of care with her own medical team. As an athletic trainer or my sister as a nurse, we have to respect what the patients want with regards to that. There is no reason for this boss to know and she should have been nicely asked to leave while mom was still in the hospital–get medical staff involved, we’re used to being the bad guys.

    1. AnonAnony*

      People can (and do!) misrepresent themselves to hospital staff all the time. When my grandmother was in the hospital, my evil step-cousin-in-law had the staff believing she was the immediate relative, and all decisions were going through her! It wasn’t until a nurse said something that made no sense that we figured it out.

      1. Tina*

        To me, that falls into the “Who does that category?” Unless it’s by the mother’s own request, which it doesn’t sound like here, I can’t imagine why someone’s boss would think it’s ok to keep out someone’s own daughter after surgery. I know I wouldn’t take too kindly to that.

        1. tinyradish*

          She actually waited until she knew I went home for the evening and then stopped by ALL NIGHT LONG. She told everyone later that I was really rude the day before for telling her that my mother had to sleep rather than entertain visitors, and that I was leaving and she should too.

          My mother mostly slept through the visit, but was feeling so sick she didn’t want to start anything by asking her to leave.

          1. fposte*

            Oh, for the love of sanity. And you know in Batty’s head, she’s hearing people say “Oh, Batty’s a saint, just a *saint.* You know she stayed with OP’s mom the whole night through after her surgery?”

            1. Jessa*

              Add, “when her lousy daughter did NOT” to that and you probably have the whole story. She’s trying to make herself look good compared to daughter as well.

          2. Editor*

            As others have noted, this is the time to enlist the staff. Obviously you were too stressed out, but if the nurses had known you and your mom wanted Batty Boss gone, they might have been able to get rid of her.

            I do think the idea of giving the boss a job is inspired, as long as it doesn’t morph into yet another problem.

            1. Jessa*

              Yeh, I was going to say this then noticed you had already done. The staff are your friends. Get Batty off the “allowed list” and tell them she is to be sent off IMMEDIATELY and not welcome on the floor.

      2. EngineerGirl*

        This. My sister represented herself as having durable power of attorney when my Dad was sick. She had given direction that I was not to be contacted or given information. The staff followed this. Ironically, my Dad had his lawyer prepare a HIPPa release for me which my sister destroyed. When the staff finally found out the truth they had a little meeting with my sister telling her they would not tolerate fraud and if she continued they would involve the state.

        Not all “helpful” people have the patients best interest at heart.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      All kinds of people invite themselves to your hospital room with little to no notice. Unless you sign the HIPAA waiver that you want nothing publicized, anyone who knows your name can get your room number. I learned that the hard way.

      1. Manda*

        I hope I never have to stay in a hospital because on top of the obvious reasons for that, I would dread all the uninvited company. The last thing I want is a bunch of people sitting there feeling sorry for me.

        1. Jamie*

          Most reasonable people respect your need for rest, if you tell them you don’t want to see them. But not everyone is reasonable, and that’s the problem.

          My heart goes out to the OP and her mom – such a difficult time and the boss shouldn’t be making it worse.

          I don’t know what it is about a cancer diagnosis that brings out the busybody in some people. When my mom had cancer there was a steady stream of what felt like every person in, or who had ever been through, the Chicago area in the hospital and at the house. My mom was the ultimate people person and really wanted the company when she was up to it…so her four decidedly non-people people children supported that because it was what she wanted.

          But it’s been almost 2 decades and I still clench up at the casual friends who wanted to talk to the doctors personally and distant family trying to commandeer everything. There were times my siblings and I had to spot each other, because without being able to escape for a few minutes and say very bad things in the privacy of our cars those very bad things would have been said aloud.

          I get that people care, and that’s wonderful, but caregivers of the very ill are going through a very rough time themselves and really don’t need people making it worse.

          So PSA – take cues from patient and family about how much involvement, visiting they want.

          But some people do like it, though. I’m on a forum about a medical issue and a lot of women are very sad that people didn’t visit after surgery as quickly as they’d have liked. So if people are asking for visits and you care about them then make the effort. Everyone who knows me knows that the last thing I need is a bunch of people standing around watching me sleep.

          But this boss – I just don’t get it. I would love an update because I’m really hoping the boss is misguided and wrong, but not malicious.

    2. AMG*

      The nurses can advocate for you and dictate who can have visitors or not. If it were me, I would bring cupcakes (of course) to the nurses’ station, and explain that they should tell the boss that mom can’t have visitors and needs to rest. A good nurse will support his/her patient as much as possible with this.

  7. Tiff*

    I love AAM because it’s truly an informative place. But I also love the cray cray, and it is all up and through this post. That woman sounds totally unstable – do others know that she’s not right in the head? She’s trying to make it all about her. She reminds me of my mother.

  8. AnonHR*

    You’re right, gross. I’m so sorry you and your mom are dealing with this on top of her diagnosis.

    I’d personally go with something like Number 1. If she is worried about pushing back on the boss’ “friendship advances”, this could be framed in a way that is just informational, like your mom just wants to make sure that her boss has all the right information and assuage any concerns about being terminal.

    I’d also suggest that your mom stop those hospital visits if (only if) they’re bothering her during her treatment. If she has real concerns that she’d lose her job over it, I’m sure it is perfectly legitimate to say that the doctors prefer her to limit visits while she is in treatment or recovery except for family, and she can keep them up to date via email more often. When my mom was in treatment, we were lucky with understanding friends and family, but it’s already a lot of work to act like you’re better than you do so you don’t worry everyone, much less to deal with this drama cherry on top.

  9. NutellaNutterson*

    I love the LA Times piece “How not to say the wrong thing” by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. I think it should be handed out at every hospital when someone asks about visiting a patient.

    1. tinyradish*

      I’ve actually drawn that circle so many times for so many people – I absolutely think it should be required reading before visiting someone in hospital.

    2. Manda*

      Reading that made me think of something stupid my mom said a couple months ago. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went. I just remember at one point I complained I was tired of people asking about my job search and then having to tell them I haven’t found anything yet. She made some dumb comment like, “How do you think I feel when people ask me about it?” O_O Like I’m supposed to care about the uncomfortable conversation she has to have? She’s always been a stay-at-home-mom and doesn’t have the slightest clue what I’m dealing with. Boo-friggen-hoo. I don’t even remember what I said and I don’t know how I didn’t blow up at her for that. Add that to the list of things not to say to someone who’s out of work.

  10. thenoiseinspace*

    I think I would assume the best about her: she honestly cares and means well, but simply doesn’t know how to handle it. True, she’s not going about it well, but handling situations like this isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. It’s very possible that she’s trying her hardest, but is just…misguided. And I agree with Alison that she might be assuming the worst and thinking that the cancer is terminal.

    Also, I think we should start a running tally of AAM advice that starts with “What the hell?” ;)

    1. bearing*

      Yes, one of the categories should be “What the hell?”

      Only letters that actually get this response from Alison should deserve it.

      Still gunning for a category called “Yes, it’s legal for them to do that.”

      1. thenoiseinspace*

        Haha YES! I remember someone had suggested we use a picture of Grumpy Cat with “YES.” to answer all of the legal ones – I can’t remember if the person who came up with it made the picture or not (sorry if they did and I’m forgetting!), but I made two of them just in case this ever actually happens:


        Still hoping it actually becomes a thing.

        1. tcookson*

          I like the first one, because it’s bigger and the cat is looking directly at the camera. The “is it legal?” kitty look has to be a direct, grumpy stare.

    2. EngineerGirl*

      I disagree. Psychopaths only appear kind. The fact that she tried to block out the daughter tells me everything I need to know. Unless the mother and daughter had a bad relationship (and it doesn’t appear that way here) the boss had zero – ZERO rights to get involved.

      This boss is not normal. This boss is not psychologically stable. This boss needs to be treated as one treats a poisonous viper. Carefully.

      I also disagree about any kind of confrontation when in such a tenuous situation. A crazy person will act like a cornered animal when confronted. The best advice is method #2. Cheerfully let people know you’re doing great. If confronted by others about what the boss has been putting out, act confused as though the boss may not have the latest info.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I completely agree. This boss has serious issues and not engaging her in any meaningful way beyond what is absolutely necessary for work purposes is the way to go.

  11. Ann Furthermore*

    Mother of God. As if dealing with cancer treatments isn’t already stressful and difficult enough.

    OP, maybe you could be the bad guy by keeping the manager away from your mom while she’s recovering. Your mom could play dumb and say that this or that medication had her completely out of it and so she had no idea what was going on. That way she could have a little peace and quiet without risking offending her nutcase manager.

    If you’re not comfortable doing that, someone else in your family could, preferably someone imposing. My husband is like that…6’5, 300 lbs, and he can be very intimidating when the occasion calls for it. It’s very handy.

  12. MentalEngineer*

    Motive is really important here. If the boss knows OP’s mom isn’t terminal but is spreading that claim around anyway, she would likely be liable for slander and/or defamation. It would be pretty easy to demonstrate that OP’s mom’s professional network was being damaged by news of her impending demise (e.g. losing out on long-term business). So no, not illegal under labor law or HIPAA, but there could be civil liability.

    None of this is likely to hold if the boss genuinely believes what she’s saying, though.

    1. fposte*

      That’s problematic, though. The damages would have to be provable (not just damage to a professional network, but countable lost money), and OP’s mom would have to be willing to spend probably 4-5 figures on a suit. More importantly, that would be several years in the future and wouldn’t help anything now. So even if it was malicious a defamation suit isn’t likely to help much.

      1. MentalEngineer*

        It’s unlikely to help now, agreed. It would make me intensely happy in OP’s place, but I’m a jerk…

      2. Ruffingit*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t go the lawsuit direction for this unless it became extremely egregious and you had no other choice. Suing one’s employer is a possibility in many situations, but not always advantageous even if you win. There is much damage that can be done when one brings such suits and you have to weigh that damage against the likely outcomes and whether they are worth it to you or not. This woman is going through cancer treatment, that’s enough for her to handle right now, but I do think spreading the word among her colleagues that she is just fine and thanks for the concern is a good idea. Batty Boss will hang herself shortly when it turns out the OP’s mom is just fine. Also, at this point, I’m certain OP’s mom’s colleagues know the boss is off her rocker and doesn’t even own the ottoman. The woman is nuts and I’m sure they won’t be surprised to find that she’s been spreading lies. OP’s mom can do damage control here fairly easily I’m thinking.

  13. EC*

    There are likely GINA (genetic information non-discrimination act) violations in the sharing of information. GINA restricts when an employer can request/share genetic information. Genetic under the Act is pretty much ANYTHING medical about the employee or anyone they are related to by blood marriage or habitation.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I don’t think that’s right. The EEOC says, “GINA covers genetic information of an individual and the genetic information of family members (for example, in determining family health history of disease). GINA does not cover an individual’s manifested disease or condition – a condition from which an individual is experiencing symptoms, being treated for, or that has been diagnosed.”

      1. Jessa*

        Yeh GINA is about potential issues, you can’t discriminate for instance because someone has the breast cancer marker gene, because they may never GET breast cancer.

  14. EC*

    – if we are talking about the daughter, then it applies as the mother is family. but it sounds like the mom is also an employee? ADA conceivably might come into play also.
    EEOC site lists manifestation as included though. (excerpted)
    genetic info includes
    1. An individual’s genetic tests (1635.3(f))
    2. Genetic tests of family members (1635.3(a))
    3. The manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members (family medical history – all conditions – not limited to conditions currently known to be inheritable – 1635.3(b
    4. Request for or receipt of genetic services by an individual or family member. Meaning: genetic test, counseling, education
    5. Genetic information of a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by the individual or family member using an assisted reproductive technology

    GINA does have a confidentiality provision also -(per EEOC site. 1635.9 Beginning Nov. 21, 2009, and thereafter, genetic information that an employer has must be kept confidential and placed in a separate medical file (ADA file is OK)

      1. Jessa*

        It may count vis the daughter, if they’re passing around information about her mother’s possibly heritable condition. IE your mother had cancer, you could too later, MIGHT be covered by GINA. But only if they act against the daughter based on that info I think.

  15. ArtsNerd*

    I love this post. First, it’s totally bizarre and I definitely want to hear ongoing updates about this.

    But also, AAM’s response is still thoughtful, practical, and compassionate – to the boss as well as OP and her mother. Well done.

Comments are closed.