I think our employee lied about having cancer

A reader writes:

I have a very bizarre situation. I read your article about a forged doctor’s note and this is similar, but different.

An employee came to me with a note stating that she was at the doctor on a particular date and cleared to return to work four days later. She then told me that the appointment was with her doctor and a cancer doctor and that she had stomach cancer and was starting chemo and radiation. I forwarded this information to my administrator, HR director, and the owner of my company. We have concerns about an employee being on chemotherapy due to the dirty nature of our jobs and the risk for potentially contagious illness.

Our adminstrator called her doctor to ask about work restrictions due to chemotherapy. The receptionist there stated that there were no work restrictions and they had no record of cancer, no record of chemotherapy, and had never referred her to a specialist.

The employee is now pissed that we called her doctor and is talking to some employees threatening a lawsuit but is otherwise acting sweet as pie. I am beside myself with anxiety and distrust. Thoughts? Are we in the wrong for trying to protect a potentially immunocompromised person?

There are two pieces of this: what you did and what your employee may have done.

Let’s cover yours first. You weren’t in the wrong to bring up concerns about work conditions that could dangerous for someone with a compromised immune system … but the way you bring that up is to talk to the employee directly, not to call her doctor on her behalf. Calling an employee’s doctor to discuss her medical condition, especially without her permission, isn’t illegal but it’s a real violation of her privacy. It’s also a violation of HIPAA for the doctor’s office to have released the information they did to you — but that’s a violation on their side, not yours. (In fact, it’s pretty shocking that the doctor’s office released that information to you, since HIPAA regulations are so clear on this. That makes me wonder if your employee isn’t even a patient there, since I believe HIPAA does allow them to say that someone is not a patient there.)

Now let’s talk about your employee’s piece of this. Has she … lied about having cancer? If so, her piece of this is far, far worse.

Have you asked her to explain why the doctor’s office told you what they did? Have you looked into whether the note itself was forged?

There are really only two possibilities here — either your employee does have cancer and there’s been a miscommunication somewhere and she’s owed a huge apology, or she told a particularly egregious lie (or series of lies) that warrants firing. Those are two very different scenarios, so you’ve got to talk with her and figure out what the hell is going on.

So, talk to her. Acknowledge that you should have spoken with her directly about your concerns originally, and apologize for seeking information about her health without her permission. Explain that you are now trying to make sense of the statement from her doctor’s office that they don’t have a record of anything she relayed to you. Ask if she can help you understand what happened there. (Say this kindly — the way you’ll want to have said it if it turns out that she didn’t lie to you. If it does turn out that she lied, you can deal with that once you’ve figured that out. But if it turns out that she’s telling the truth, you won’t be able to erase treating her as a liar.)

Given the circumstances, it would also be smart to have the doctor’s office verify that the note from them is real. HIPAA does allow them to confirm or deny that they wrote this sort of note, so you could fax it to them with a request for that confirmation. (To be clear, I don’t think you should be requiring employees to supply doctors’ notes at all because your employees are generally adults, not wayward children, but you have and in a case that has so many hallmarks of fakery, it’s reasonable to confirm it’s real.)

It’s also okay to let your thinking here be informed — at least to some extent — by what you know of this employee aside from this. Is she someone who you’ve previously known to be trustworthy? Or have there been other times where things haven’t added up? People are often pretty consistent when it comes to having or lacking integrity, so it’s not unreasonable to calibrate your suspicion meter based on what else you know of how she generally operates, whether it’s good or bad.

Update: The letter-writer has updated in the comments here, noting that the employee has now acknowledged she doesn’t have cancer and that she lied because the letter-writer was asking too many questions.

Read another update to this letter here.

{ 419 comments… read them below }

  1. Jack the Treacle Eater*

    Also bear in mind it’s by no means unknown for receptionists to give out incorrect information (and perhaps information from a receptionist who would casually violate confidentiality should be taken with a pinch of salt).

    1. Liz*

      Agreed. My first thought was that the receptionist had no idea what to do and just figured it would be better to just deny everything.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        Yeah, especially if this was a newer receptionist. I did something like this within my first week on the job when I worked at my university’s disability office. The HIPAA stuff had been beaten into my head so much, as was the promise of dismissal if I were to violate said agreement, that when people called asking about one of our clients (usually parents or faculty), I’d say that person wasn’t using our services even when I knew they were. Thankfully, I was able to learn better ways of handling these calls, but if this receptionist is new, she may not have learned differently yet.

          1. Todd*

            Munchausen syndrome is a factitious disorder, a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick

            So yes, that would be a perfectly logical guess.

      2. Mary*

        I think its important to find out if you have an employee lying. Lying about cancer is a seriously sick minded person with a deep seated personality disorder.. The employer should have confronted them; however, this person would have just lied about it.

    2. Liz in a Library*

      Yes. There are great and subpar employees in every field, including this one. I recently had my doctor’s receptionist tell me I wasn’t allowed to make an appointment more than once a year (not their policy, for obvious reasons). Sometimes you get bad information.

  2. TL -*

    It’s very likely the receptionist was trying to abide by HIPAA by denying anything going on at all – but honestly, the receptionist most likely shouldn’t have access to her medical files and *definitely* shouldn’t have looked. The receptionist also couldn’t have answered any questions about restrictions, nor could the doctor have without violating HIPAA – is there a reason you didn’t ask the employee about this? I’m so confused about the whole process on your company’s part and I think this is most likely a mix-up on the doctor’s office part.

    1. Cat*

      Yeah, the whole thing is such a weird thing for the receptionist to have done, that I’m wondering if it was someone who just had no idea what to do, wasn’t well trained, and jumped to “deny, deny, deny” as the way to handle this. Like did she think the employer was trying to verify cancer that the employee was attempting to keep secret and freaked out? Perhaps she thought the employer wanted to fire someone for having cancer and that’s why they were asking about work restrictions?

      1. TL -*

        It also sounds like the company called the PCP, who, HIPAA aside, wouldn’t actually be able to advise on chemo restrictions or have detailed notes on the treatment itself. That would all be handled by the oncologist.

            1. OP*

              The employee now denies having told me she had cancer. Though, she told me and 2 of her coworkers that day.

              1. my two cents*

                yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of news you don’t forget hearing from a coworker. Yikes.

          1. TL -*

            No, the problem lies with calling the doctor’s office who is not legally allowed to provide any information anyways.
            Sorry; I don’t mean to be harsh but that’s not how you handle a request for medical accommodations.

            1. sunny-dee*

              Well, that’s a mistake. The receptionist can simply say, “we can’t give out that kind of information without permission. You need to do X instead.” And that’s the extent of their mistake.

              The employee lying about having cancer is actually a big deal.

            2. TootsNYC*

              and a doctor can say, “I can’t discuss that patient, but your question was about whether any patient undergoing chemo might be further damaged by the amount of dust in your warehouse? That general information is something I can answer.”

      2. INTP*

        Yeah, I wondered the same thing – if the receptionist, knowing that refusal to deny can be interpreted as a confirmation, answered in a way that was interpreted as a denial. Maybe not even a flat-out denial, but a non-answer that was interpreted that way by the administrator who was already suspicious of the employee. It sounds like no one in the whole group involved really understands medical confidentiality practices and may not know that a non-answer is really a non-answer.

  3. FCJ*

    I’m a little curious about what the receptionist at the doctor’s office actually said. It it possible that they were in fact invoking HIPAA and the administrator on the OP’s end interpreted “I cannot confirm” as “this never happened”?

    1. SophieChotek*

      Yes that was what I wondered also, especially after reading the above comments.
      Perhaps not well expressed, if not well trained.

  4. Sadsack*

    Why in the world would you not have asked the employee directly about her ability to work there given her diagnosis and planned treatment? I cannot imagine how anyone thought the logical step was to call the doctor when they should have asked the employee. This makes me think there were doubts about the validity of the note and the employee’s story to begin with.

    1. INTP*

      My interpretation was that the employee wanted to keep working and the OP/other management had doubts that it was okay for an immunocompromised person to do the job, though in retrospect there’s nothing in the letter to specifically confirm that. In any case I’m not sure why you would engage a receptionist about work restrictions related to specific jobs.

    2. The Butcher of Luverne*

      I’m seriously questioning the behavior of the employer. Who thinks it’s EVER okay to call an employee’s doctor?

        1. sunny-dee*

          I don’t know the nature of your work — and it’s not quite the same situation, since my dad works at a remote site — but they have contacted the on-site medic for advice for people who had had injuries (or, in one case) was pregnant and they needed to understand the limits for a fairly physically demanding job. More like, “can Joe actually lift this much weight?” or “Susie has to be on her feet for 10 hours, do we need to find an alternate job for her?”

          It could be that they’re asking a question that they assumed the patient wouldn’t know (“does X chemical cause a risk in Y situation?”), so they’re calling the doctor for clarification.

          I’m making a ton of assumptions there, but that’s what I’m assuming.

          (That also would explain why the lady had a note to clear her for work — my dad’s work doesn’t typically require doctors notes, but it is required if someone had an injury that prevented them from working. They want the doctor to say that the person can come back, not just the person saying they feel fine.)

          1. AnotherHRPro*

            Yes, we do have some individuals at our company that are responsible for contacting doctors offices to verify treatment plans to determine the length of medical leave an employee is approved for and to address concerns about accommodations.

        2. fposte*

          Because it’s okay with the doctor doesn’t mean it’s okay in management, though. However, I think that’s the least of the problems in this situation.

          1. Friday Brain All Week Long*

            Isn’t that discriminatory and an ADA violation though? The employer can’t impede the employee from doing her regular job if the employee and her doctor feel it’s safe to do so.

            1. fposte*

              I think we may be crossing wires–I’m saying that permission on the doctor’s note *to talk to the doctor* isn’t the same thing as permission from the employee.

              1. Friday Brain All Week Long*

                Ah, I see. Yes, that doctor/doctor’s office is making a really dumb move with the “call for more info” addition to the note, basically asking the employer to seek out more info about their employee’s medical issue without the employee knowing, or authorizing the release of more info. The doctor should put all the info the employer needs to know right on that note.

            2. Anna*

              Uh. Yeah they can. They can absolutely give the employee different duties to do if they exist to cover their bases in making sure the employee is safe.

    3. She's a Lady*

      Can one of our resident HR experts chime in on what a good employer policy is for situations when an employee discloses a medical condition that effects their ability to work? I deal only with workers’ compensation, where HIPAA doesn’t apply to employers and it is actually expected that an employer keep tabs on an employee’s condition to the point of directing medical care. With this in mind, I can see why an employer would be confused about what they can ask a doctor about when it is a personal medical condition. I suppose you could request a fit for duty exam?

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        You go to the employee and tell them they must have a note from their doctor releasing them to come to work under their working conditions, and they may not come back to work without it. You provide the paperwork, including a job description for the doctor to reference. If the information is insufficient, you can send the ee back to their doctor for further clarification. If there are restrictions, you have a chat with your employee about if/how to meet those restrictions. If you have concerns, you can send them for a second opinion at your cost. It’s all about “can the employee return to work, and under what conditions.”

  5. Prismatic Professional*

    I can see why the employee would be upset, and she should definitely address the lack of professionalism with the medical office (as HIPPA does apply to them). From the letter I can’t tell if OP knew the administrator was going to call the medical office or not. This wouldn’t really affect the outcome (the administrator did call), but it could make it easier to establish a rapport with the employee if you did not know.

    “I am required to report potential health hazards to the management team, so I passed along the information you provided. I was planning on addressing any concerns identified by management with you directly. I did not know the administrator [was required/would call on her own] your medical office.”

    Somebody with a better silver tongue than me could offer some better options. This is a sucky situation and you have my sympathy.

    1. OP*

      Thank you. I didn’t know my administrator would call, though the note did tell us to call with any questions. It is such a nightmare situation!

      The employee and I have spoken about it minimally since. I told her I was sorry she felt this was blown out of proportion but that I forwarded the information I had to the appropriate authorities in our company and that they acted as they saw best. The employee now says that she feels she can’t trust me. But otherwise, the employee is acting like nothing ever happened, and I feel like all I see when I look at her is a rattlesnake.

        1. fposte*

          From the OP’s subsequent posts, I wouldn’t worry about whether this employee trusted me or not.

          1. OP*

            Yeah, don’t care that she doesn’t think she can trust me. It’s just honestly laugh out loud funny that her take-away from this so far is that she can’t trust me.

        2. sunny-dee*

          What? The OP *has* to tell HR because of ADA and insurance concerns. Why would doing that be a violation of trust?

            1. sunny-dee*

              Yeah, but that her response to the employee lying about cancer. Which isn’t a really unjustified response.

      1. SL #2*

        Well. In the employee’s defense, anyone from management is already showing themselves to not be trustworthy with medical information of any sort. Calling her doctors? Treating her as a liar when it’s possible that the receptionist was giving a HIPAA non-answer? If I were in the employee’s shoes, I’d read all of this as “they’re trying to push me out because of my medical condition.”

          1. TL -*

            Okay, but if it hadn’t been an employee who was lying – if this had been a person with cancer – imagine how that employee would feel.
            The big issue here is indeed the lying employee but that doesn’t mean it was handled well by OP or company.

            1. fposte*

              I think the OP handled it fine–she forwarded the information to her supervisor, to HR, and to the owner of the company. Do you see a problem with that, or are you meaning the supervisor who called the doctor’s office rather than the OP?

          2. SL #2*

            In this situation, it’s not cancer. But like TL is saying, what if it was? The employee may have lied about having cancer and that’s a whole different ball game, but the OP’s office handled the situation so poorly that my eyes are bugging out just thinking about it.

  6. INTP*

    What I hope happened here (not that I hope the employee has cancer, of course) is that the OP just misconstrued the receptionist’s efforts to not give information as a denial. I could see this happening – the receptionist maybe handling it a little clumsily (because in some cases a denial to give an answer could be interpreted as a confirmation), and someone not well-versed in HIPAA misunderstanding.

    I’m also a little confused about what the employee’s motives would have been. It sounds like she’s trying to continue working her normal tasks – hence the OP’s concerns – so what exactly was she trying to get? A convenient excuse for a lot of “appointments”? There are easier illnesses to fake.

    In any case, Alison’s advice is excellent. Don’t treat her as a liar from the start because you can’t take that back, especially having already wronged her by trying to discuss medical information behind her back. If she is lying, you’ll figure it out and you can just fire it on the spot and it won’t be a big tragedy that you’ve missed the opportunity to be confrontational with her.

    1. Spooky*

      That’s a good point – what would her endgame be? I don’t see much benefit to faking something so huge other than extra leave.

      1. Rmric0*

        People fake illnesses for a variety of reason beyond extra leave. Some folks do it for attention. Some people do it for money. Some people just for the thrill of lying. Some people because they think life is dull and want to cut a romantic figure in their stories to others. Others are just weird.

      2. CD*

        To me, the fact that there is not a discernible endgame here points to a possibility of mental health issues.

    2. Guava*

      A 6+ week vacation? (Assuming she doesn’t have cancer and wanted to bounce for a few weeks without it affecting accrued vacation time). IDK, people are strange.

    3. Chickaletta*

      I was wondering what her purpose for lying is too (if that’s what’s going on), but I’ve heard of it happening before. Long time ago, my best friend’s brother told his family that he had cancer; shaved his head and everything. It took a year or so before they figured out that he had lied, and due to the enormous hurt feelings they cut him out for years – probably over a decade they didn’t talk, didn’t meet his children, nothing. It was finally last year, when their grandmother passed away, that they reunited and forgave. I don’t know what his reason for lying about having cancer was, and I don’t think his family ever understood it either. Sympathy? Attention? Who knows. I think he realized that what he did was wrong though and that there were better ways to get whatever it was he was looking for.

      1. INTP*

        I’ve heard of people doing this to cover up substance abuse from loved ones. But someone telling their employer that they have cancer, yet not trying to get out of their normal work duties, is really weird to me. (From the OP’s post below it seems like that is indeed what happened.) There are easier things to fake if you just want to skip work a lot!

        1. Chickaletta*

          You might be on to something regarding the substance abuse.

          But yes, it’s strange for the OP’s employee to lie about it. I really hope we get an update if she finds out why!

        2. DR*

          I used to have a friend that did exactly that. Lied about having cancer and soon after found out he was using heroine pretty regularly. This was senior year-ish of high school. Haven’t spoken to him in years.

      2. DoDah*

        I grew up with someone who used to fake catastrophic medical conditions and her family knew this about her. Their way of dealing with it was just to say , “oh that’s the way Mary is…she’s just dramatic…”

  7. Léna*

    Long time reader, new commenter :)

    Like some said, I think it actually may be a misunderstanding – from the doctor’s office or from the OP?
    I just can’t begin to understand how and why someone could lie about something as HUGE as having cancer (as opposed to having the flu or something). I mean, c’mon, at one point or another such a huge lie is going to blow up in your face. So I’d err on the side of “Whoops”.

    1. addlady*

      Well, it has happened. There was an incident in my town but I’m betting this woman was doing it mainly for attention. She shaved her head and everything. But really, that’s an extreme example and I’m going to agree that this is probably a miscommunication.

        1. addlady*

          Yeah. She got some teacher of the year award and got in the newspaper–the same newspaper that published the story when it turned out she’d been faking it the whole time. Some people will do anything for attention.

      1. Amy M in HR*

        Yes, there was an incident in my city recently as well, and the woman ended up getting arrested because she decided to fund raise for her brain and stomach cancer (that she did not really have). I agree that it is probably for attention that spawned from much deeper seeded (possibly mental health) issues. Very unfortunate.

    2. Loose Seal*

      Several years ago, my boss was firing a co-worker and in that conversation, the co-worker said she was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she really needed the insurance that came with the job to pay to treat it. She said that by firing her, the boss was killing her. My boss went ahead with the firing but was so upset by this, she came to me and asked if the former employee had ever mentioned to me that she had cancer. So I got the whole story.

  8. Jillociraptor*

    I don’t want to conspiracy theorize, OP but just tossing out there and seeing if something sticks…is there any chance that your Administrator has any motivation for lying about your employee?

    I ask because folks in clinical/medical settings take HIPAA extremely seriously. HUGE deal, BFD. And this is a textbook case, nothing confusing or ambiguous about what the receptionist should have done. If things played out the way your administrator said, something’s gone really radically wrong with that medical office. Without knowing any other details, I’d find it more likely that the administrator is either accidentally or intentionally misremembering the conversation, than that anyone employed in a clinical setting would mess this up.

    I could totally be wrong! And all of my clinical experience is with a gigantic insurance company and a research center in a major medical school, so maybe if this is just Dr. Smith hanging his own shingle out in town they’re not so systematized in their training. But wanted to toss out the possibility to consider the administrator’s perspective in case there might be more breakdowns in the game of telephone that got this information to you.

    1. Juli G.*

      Regardless of OPs follow-up, it’s not a bad point. But I also think that this blog has numerous examples of medical staff not taking HIPPA seriously.

    2. Anna*

      I think it’s case of the simplest explanation is the likeliest. The employee has been known to lie and lied about this.

  9. Tony F*

    This just screams “problem employee”. You did nothing wrong. Verifying, or attempting to verify, work restrictions is normal and shows that you are attempting to accommodate your employee’s condition appropriately.

    Write everything down. Loop HR in on everything. Call a lawyer. This has the potential to end badly.

    1. TL -*

      Oh, no. Verifying work restrictions like this is not okay and should not be viewed as normal. It’s a huge invasion of privacy and ineffective in multiple ways.

      1. Amy M in HR*

        Agreed, work restrictions should be provided to the employee by their physician and then brought in to the employer, I have never called a physician myself to ask about restrictions, that is the employees responsibility (unless it is a worker’s comp issue, which this isn’t, but then the WC case manager would deal with the restrictions, not the employer).

    2. INTP*

      But it doesn’t sound like they were trying to confirm work restrictions that the OP told them about – which should be done with the full knowledge of the employee, anyways. The OP says they were concerned that the employee shouldn’t be doing her job on chemo, like they were trying to check up on work restrictions that the employee had denied needing.

    3. SL #2*

      Nope nope nope!!! Verifying work restrictions directly with a patient’s doctor if you aren’t the patient is NOT NORMAL AT ALL. Medical staff who give out information like that are committing huge HIPAA violations and likely to be fired or stripped of their licenses if it’s discovered.

  10. Joseph*

    I’m wondering why exactly a company would call in the first place. Let’s run down the possibilities here:
    1.) The doctor’s office follows the HIPAA law and refuses to give you any information. This doesn’t help at all and probably ticks off your employee if they ever find out about it. Worth noting this is far and away the most likely outcome, since the doctor’s office is *legally required* to maintain confidentiality.
    2.) The doctor confirms the diagnosis and that there might be work restrictions. How exactly do you plan on telling the employee without it coming across as (a) you didn’t trust her to manage her own health and/or (b) you didn’t believe she had cancer?
    3.) The doctor confirms the diagnosis, but no work restrictions. Okay, fine, but just like in #2, there isn’t any way to spin this positively.

    1. OP*

      I feel like we are caught in a bind in that if I allow her to work ostensibly knowing she has cancer and will be immunocompromised and she catches e. coli or intestinal parasites or crypto from working in the kennel, I’m liable for allowing her to contract that disease. Very much felt like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

      I genuinely believed she had cancer until my administrator called to tell me about her call with the doctor’s office.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        If your company had specific concerns like you listed, maybe you should have requested that the employee get a letter from her doctor outlining that she could still do the work (or list any accommodations that would have to be made on your end). If your employer felt obligated to call the doctor’s office, they should have told the OP first and why.

        How does someone disclose they have stomach cancer and will undergo chemo and radiation and there is no immediate discussion about modified work/schedule/time off in the future? I think the focus should have started with having empathy for the employee followed with being open to working on how she would be able to balance treatment with work – not just immediately verifying with her doctor’s office. I think this knee jerk call to the doctor’s office happened because of the other issues with this employee. Also, I really hope the phone call to the doctor was focused on the employee’s health and the work they do on the job and not confirming a diagnosis to make sure she was truthful.

        1. sunny-dee*

          I really hope the phone call to the doctor was focused on the employee’s health and the work they do on the job and not confirming a diagnosis to make sure she was truthful.

          The OP said that was the case. The only reason lying came up was because the doctor’s office said she’d never had a cancer diagnosis. The call was to check on what was needed to protect the employee’s health.

          1. nonegiven*

            The doctor shouldn’t have given any information beyond confirming or denying the note.

      2. TL -*

        But. Not all cancer treatments immunocompromise patients and it’s not your job to make medical decisions for your employees.
        A better approach would have been to ask her to talk to her doctor specifically about your infection concerns and get a note from her about accommodations that are needed, if any. Just say you need a note addressing the possibility of infection while undergoing treatments.

        1. Anna*

          The OP wasn’t making medical decisions for the employee; she was determining if she needed to change the employee’s duties to protect the employee and MOST importantly, THE COMPANY.

      3. Amy M in HR*

        Quite often I will provide a job description (from our P & P’s) to our employee to provide to their physician, so their physician has a good idea of what the job entails and what hazards there could be. That allows the physician to make an informed decision as to whether or not there should be restrictions in place.

        1. She's a Lady*

          I think this is good advice for the employer. Having a close relationship with the doctor is very common in workers’ compensation, where HIPAA doesn’t apply, so I think employers could get confused on what rules they should follow when it’s a personal illness. In this case, it sounds like the proper procedure would have been to send the employee back to their doctor with a job description and have the employee bring back a note about accommodations needed, if any, or at least get permission from the employee to talk to the doctor, because the doctor shouldn’t provide the employer with any extra information without permission anyway.

  11. OP*

    Hi, everyone. Thank you for the advice. I am the manager that submitted this question.

    A little more detail: the employee told me that she was starting a very powerful chemotherapeutic drug that would make her severely compromised. She works in a dog kennel where being immunocompromised could be a life threatening condition. I asked her if she had any work restrictions, and she told me no. This doesn’t make any sense at all. We called the doctor’s office to verify that she did not have any work restrictions from her cancer and chemotherapy and the receptionist there said, and I quote “we do not have any record of cancer, chemotherapy or a specialist referral, besides a therapist.” We then had my administrator and HR director speak with her and ask for clarification, coming from a perspective of concern for her health in a potentially immunocompromised state. She then told them she had never told me she had cancer, but that she had H. pylori being treated with antibiotics and that she had lied to me about the doxorubicin because I was asking too many questions. So, basically, I know she is lying but our HR referral service told us not to fire her for this because of ADA concerns.

    She does also have a history of exaggeration and lies and has a write up in her record for harassing other employees. She is on her way out already, but this is such a huge headache in the mean time.

    1. Lucky*

      So, she’s an exaggerator, but has been referred to a therapist (which, whoa, her doctor’s office should not have told you that.) Maybe she has legitimate health concerns that may mean taking time off, not feeling her best, etc., but is embarrassed to say that they are mental health-related?

          1. Loose Seal*

            Yes, the dr’s office can be fined for violating HIPAA but the complainant doesn’t get any of that money.

          2. Noah*

            A lot of states have medical privacy laws that are similar to HIPAA but allow a private right of action.

    2. TL -*

      Ugh. I’m glad she doesn’t have cancer and it sounds like she needs to be managed out but a) the receptionist violated HIPAA in a big way and should be fired and b) that’s really not a good way for your company to handle medical concerns with employees.

      1. Brandy in TN*

        Yes, the Drs office shouldn’t have spoken to them at all without her permission. And that would mean her getting on the line and saying its ok. This is not acceptable under HIPPA. I work for a health co and we would never do this.

        1. Port of Indecision*

          We don’t know that she didn’t give authorization to speak to her office though. If she had them write a note, she may have authorized the release of that info in that process.

        2. Rater Z*

          Another question — why is a receptionist giving out the information anyway?? That should be more the doctor herself or someone with the authority/medical knowledge to do so at the clinic. A receptionist sounds more like the person one meets when she walks in the door at the clinic.

          1. De Minimis*

            I’d bet anything this is a small medical clinic [maybe just one doctor and a handful of other staff.] These type of things are more likely to happen somewhere like that.

    3. neverjaunty*

      Why on earth can’t they just fire her right away? Regardless of whether your administrator should have called her physician, she admitted she lied to you for no reason whatsoever.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        I am always perplexed that companies have problem employees and don’t/can’t manage them out. Fire this woman. Any law suits where she may have an actual case would be against the doctor’s office, not the employer.

      2. AF*

        They said they have an ADA concern. So if she’s seeing a therapist (presumably for mental health issues), she could sue the employer for discriminating against her because of her disease. Even though they have proof that they were firing her because she lied, and could bring that up in court, some companies don’t even want to go there if it risks any kind of potential lawsuit. In this case, it royally sucks that they can’t fire her.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Yes, they can fire her. That an employee might file a lawsuit does not mean the employer “can’t” fire her, or even that its concerns about a lawsuit are anything other than anxiety. That’s why they should be talking to an employment lawyer, instead of handwringing about maybe they might get sued. People who are fired for 100% obvious ironclad cause still sometimes sue. That’s not preventable.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              Yes to all that but so many employers seem to take that same path of least resistance.

              1. DMC*

                Yes, anyone can sue at any time, and unfortunately, lawsuits typically cost employers thousands and thousands of dollars, even if the lawsuit goes nowhere (because they still have to pay the attorneys hundreds of dollars per hour to deal with the lawsuit).

            2. The Bimmer Guy*

              Can they fire her with a small amount of severance pay if she signs an agreement not to sue?

              1. neverjaunty*

                Again: they can fire her.

                Whether it would be wise to pay her severance, and whether there should be a release of her right to sue, are questions that a competent lawyer in OP’s state should answer.

              2. Kalli*

                In some areas that agreement wouldn’t hold water at all – if there is any hint of a statutory right to a claim, it can’t be signed away. So if it’s not an at-will state, if there’s a contract with clear termination procedures etc. It still wouldn’t stop an employee suing, filing for unemployment, or anything else. It would just be another factor in any resultant decision, and one that would hold very little sway on the result.

          1. She's a Lady*

            Right. And if the employer doesn’t follow company progressive discipline policy on this now, then the policy can’t really be relied on in the future either, because as soon as you fire someone else, they could quickly point out in a lawsuit that your policy is a façade.

            1. LadyCop*

              Yes. Ohmygoodness I have seen good, honest people fired for far less. Lawsuit paranoia is the wrong reasons for them to back off on this.

          2. Wilton Businessman*

            Tie her hands in an agreement and throw her some decent severance in consideration of agreement to the terms favorable to the compay. Get her out, immediately.

        2. Natalie*

          She has to self identify as needing ADA accommodation before they have any obligation to the provide it, which it doesn’t sound like she has done here.

          1. Ant.*

            Can you or someone please provide legal proof of this being on the employee to self-identify accommodation? It could be very helpful to a challenge I’m facing now. Thank you in advance.

    4. The Butcher of Luverne*

      and I quote “we do not have any record of cancer, chemotherapy or a specialist referral, besides a therapist.”

      Is it me or is this an egregious privacy violation on the part of the doctor’s office? Telling you she was referred to a therapist???

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Correct. This is a straight up HIPAA violation. The employee can report that to the Department of Health and Human Services if she wants to.

        I get why you wanted to call her health care provider, but the better way was to contact an attorney for guidance and liability protection. Violating federal law, which I get your office didn’t do, isn’t the answer.

      2. OP*

        Oh, it is. I would not want to be her doctor right now! But neither do I want to be her manager…

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          ugh I’m sorry this sucks for you. If it makes you feel any better, I’m told that before I worked here we had an employee who also faked cancer. I don’t know all the details but we did end up in a lawsuit, but only because the company had taken up donations and raised quite a sum of money for this person!

        2. Charisma*

          And to think, once upon a time I did everything I could to hide the fact that I had cancer from my employer. I was still relatively young and in college, working part-time. Had no clue what my rights were. Luckily I caught it very early, it was a very non aggressive form of cancer and I ended up taking only one quarter off from school to recover. I still lost my job though after my supervisor found out.

          It actually really bothers me that someone that would use any severe illness to invoke sympathy. But why is it ALWAYS cancer?

          1. Annonymouse*

            Socially acceptable, guilt free and shuts down people pretty quickly.

            I mean AIDS and mental health issues are just as serious but there tends to be an attitude of “you brought this on yourself / you could fix it if you want.”

            Cancer makes you a perfect victim.

            1. KAG*

              I’m fairly sure that no one will see this, as it’s both downthread and over a year has passed. I’ve lied to my employer about why I’m not coming into work (using PTO, offering to take unpaid leave, etc) because I have serious anxiety and some days i physically can’t come in. Because of the stigma attached, exacerbated by my company’s no work from home policy, i have lied about having car trouble, the flu, what have you, in order to use my PTo to work from home. As with the employee, I use issues that have some grounding in fact to cover up why I’m really working from home.

              1. Gay Drunk Patriots Fan*

                Which is why I ***LOVE*** my company’s PTO policy: if you have the time accrued, and you follow the proper procedures and policies, you can just simply use PTO whenever you want to for any reason or no reason. You shouldn’t have to lie and you shouldn’t have to come up with socially acceptable excuses in order to take care of your mental health. You do whatever you need to do to keep yourself healthy and don’t you dare ever feel guilty about it! :-)

      3. Wendy Darling*

        Yeah that’s pretty gnarly.

        I took my SO to the doctor once when he was sick. It was his first time at this doctor and while I was waiting for him a nurse came out with a patient following her and said, in her outside voice so the entire (packed) waiting area could hear, “THIS IS JAMIE LANNISTER, CAN YOU SET HIM UP WITH A PSYCHIATRY REFERRAL?”

        My boyfriend finished his appointment and I told him he needed to never go to that place again. He did not go to that place again.

        1. Noah*

          That is not a straight up HIPAA violation though. It is an incidental exposure and is allowed.

          1. A Non*

            Not quite – while HIPAA acknowledges that it’s common for patients to get a glimpse of other patient’s charts, or overhear part of a conversation, it does require that providers take reasonable precautions to avoid that kind of thing happening. Like not shouting confidential information down a hallway. It’s generally not treated as a breach, but it’s not okay either. If someone did this and it resulted in, say, the patient losing their job, the patient could sue – the ‘no private right of action’ bit means that patients can’t sue simply over the fact of the breach, but they can still sue for any damages that occur as a result. The Office of Civil Rights might not come after you for it, but neither are they going to stand up in court and say that this kind of incaution with patient information is acceptable.

            (Source: http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/incidental-uses-and-disclosures/index.html It cites 45 CFR 164.530(c). )

            1. Wendy Darling*

              Yeah, I don’t know if it was actually a HIPAA violation or not but it was definitely a douche move, and it was my boyfriend’s first time seeing that doctor. He now goes someplace else where they do not bellow information about your care across the waiting room.

              Poor Mr. Lannister had come into the waiting room looking pretty unhappy and promptly upgraded to totally miserable after the entire room heard he was getting a psych consult. :/

              1. A Non*

                Oh yeah, serious douche move. That’s a fireable offense IMHO, whether or not it will summon the wrath of the OCR. (Actually, it’s pretty hard to incur the wrath of the OCR. Manage your client info correctly, reprimand the people who do crap like this, and the OCR will sit back and let you handle it. You pretty much have to willfully ignore the OCR’s warnings to start getting the serious penalties.)

        2. twanon*

          Some doctor’s office staff can be really rude.

          I was recovering from an eating disorder at one point, and part of my recovery plan was to visit my doctor twice a month for consult and weight monitoring. An patient with an emergency got bumped up in front of me once; no problem. But I heard the nurse casually tell him, “Don’t worry about her. She’s just here for a weigh-in.” I didn’t hear what the other patient said, but the nurse very loudly responded, “High school stuff – she makes herself upchuck.”

          It was a trigger for a massive relapse.

          Really good idea to get your boyfriend away from a place that’s so shoddy about patient confidentiality.

          1. Lacey*

            How awful. I’m sorry you had to deal with that, and I hope you are doing and feeling better now.

      4. Ad Astra*

        This is such an egregious violation that I’m having trouble even caring about the rest of the OP’s story/question. I’m just… floored, I guess. When I’m done being gobsmacked by this violation, I’ll start being mad that the employer called an employee’s doctor.

    5. AnotherHRPro*

      You now that the employee lied. ADA does not protect someone from lying. Yes, you do have some risk but it is not particularly high. If you were my client I would recommend termination for dishonesty. But if you already have plans in place to terminate for another reason you can go with that as well. I will say that it is possible the employee will claim retaliation when you do terminate her so be sure you have documented everything very thoroughly. Memos to file are your best friend.

      1. Amy M in HR*

        ^^^ Yes, 1000% And I would see if your Code of Conduct or Employee Handbook mentions anything about honesty and/or integrity to back it up with.

      2. Mel*

        That’s not exactly right though. If others or she lied before and didn’t get fired and the only difference now is that you have some medical info on her that’s going to cause an eeo investigator to question your real reason for firing. So its very possible Ada might protect her for that lie.

        1. OhNo*

          ADA would only protect her if she had a qualifying condition, for which she needed accommodation. I won’t claim to be an expert, but I don’t think H. Pylori is a qualifying condition, and she doesn’t seem to have requested any accommodations, just time off to visit the doctor, which was granted. I don’t think ADA applies here (although I hope someone will correct me if it does).

          1. Mel*

            That’s not true either. Ada protects you if you are perceived as disabled whether you need an accommodation or not.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              ADA protects you if you have or are perceived as having a qualifying condition. In this case, the OP has acknowledged she does not have cancer, so it’s not a perception issue.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Which doesn’t sound like it qualifies under the ADA, so that would be moot.

                  Regardless, the OP can document that she’s not being fired for a medical issue but for lying, and it sounds like she can show a pattern of lying.

              1. politiktity*

                But she is seeing a therapist. Doesn’t that imply a qualifying condition that has a lot more stigma than cancer?

                And four day break? That sounds a lot like a 72 hour psychiatric hold.

                It was something that I found troubling about your post yesterday. Mental health has a lot of stigma, but your examples all out the employee in a way that isn’t really safe yet.

                1. Green*

                  ADA doesn’t prevent you from being fired. It is intended to prevent you from being fired *because of* a subcategory of conditions where your employer could have worked something out with you first. It now no longer matters whether the OP has some other potentially qualifying condition. She would be being fired for lying.

                2. CD*

                  For therapy to be covered by insurance, wouldn’t there have to be a diagnosis? And it seems likely that if there’s a diagnosis, it’s probably a condition covered under the ADA.

                3. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Insurance doesn’t require a diagnosis — it can just be “family therapy,” “grief therapy,” “marriage counseling,” or whatever. And even when there is a diagnosis, it’s not a given that it would be covered under the ADA unless it’s interfering with a major life function.

                4. Kalli*

                  There _are_ conditions which can be diagnosed/treated with therapy that can present with compulsive lying. Additionally, specifically in this circumstance, anxiety may have made the employee feel that lying was a safer option than continuing a conversation about her medical situation, and it backfired. It’s definitely a thing that can’t be ruled out without more information. The manager had a doctor’s note. Why wasn’t that enough? Where did the questions even come from? I don’t think we have the information to say either way, here, except that it can’t be ruled out.

                5. casually commenting*

                  >> I’d venture to guess the majority of people in therapy aren’t there for ADA-qualifying conditions.

                  I’m not so sure. The percentage of the general population with anxiety disorders alone is well into the double digits. Clinically significant mental illness is (ba-dum tish) depressingly common.

          2. Noah*

            H. Pylori causes ulcers, so it could be substantially limiting in one or more major life activity (which is the standard for whether something is a disability). It depends on her symptoms.

            1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

              But still the ADA only prevents firing someone because of their medical condition – not firing them in general. If I lose a limb and then embezzle money from my workplace, they can fire me for embezzlement. I can’t claim that I’m being discriminated against for my one-arm-ed-ness. Or, rather, I can claim it and sue, but if my employer has proof of my embezzlement then I will not win.

              1. Noah*

                Yes, of course. You can fire disabled people for legal reasons, but from a risk management perspective it’s…riskier.

                1. Gaia*

                  Not if you’ve done your job right. I can be fired because I robbed my employer blind and still sue them for wrongful termination. But if they’ve documented that its because I robbed them I will lose. The same would be true whether or not I was disabled and under ADA.

          3. Stranger than fiction*

            Unless maybe she gets the therapist to say she has some sort of pathological lying disorder. I still think Op’s employer would prevail though, but I’m not a lawyer.

            1. Patrick*

              The ADA isn’t a “get out of jail free” card though – in your situation, having a disorder that causes someone to pathologically lie doesn’t mean that “it’s OK for you to lie” is a reasonable accommodation.

              Here’s an example that’s kind of helpful (at least in my head) – we had an employee who was ultimately terminated due to their drug/alcohol issues. In order to hopefully stay on the right side of the law (and be decent people) this employee was given the chance to go to rehab/counseling and return to their job. When issues kept persisting we felt like we were in the right to fire him, and from my understanding legally we were – the rehab stint was the accommodation, not being allowed to be drunk on the job.

          1. Person*

            It sounds to me like the worker is seeking psychiactric help, and didn’t want to disclose that, and felt like she needed to explain she has something medical going on. This manager sounds reeeeaallly nosy, (to the point of calling the worker’s doctor!) and I can see why a worker would feel the need to provide some sort of story about why she’s needing time for doctor appointments, etc. Who knows- maybe she’s seeking help for the exact things she’s been corrected for at work, like lying. I think it validates the worker’s apprehension that this manager did an end-run around her to her doctor’s office and outed her. Some things are private. She shouldn’t have had to make up a story. I can see why she felt she needed to. I’ve had managers like this. I didn’t lie to them, but I felt a lot of pressure to disclose more than I wanted to and when I didn’t there were snide snarky comments.

            1. Bevin del Rey*

              People in life will ask you personal questions. It’s never someone else’s “nosiness” (in this case, legitimate concern for his/her employee’s well-being that was carried out in a slightly not-so-great way) that ‘makes’ an employee do anything, much less lie. We’re all responsible for setting our own boundaries, for disclosing as much information as we want to, and for behaving with integrity. To quote Alison, people can say things such as, “I’ll have a medical condition I need to take care of.” If pushiness resulted in response to such a comment, “I’d rather not discuss it” will suffice.

              1. Person*

                But this isn’t a ‘person in life’, it’s a manager – who controls this worker’s livelihood, and probably, medical insurance. This manager’s behavior shows me some pretty aggressive boundary-pushing. People like that don’t respond well to reasonable comments. I’m not defending the lie, but sometimes people are not entitled to the information they are demanding and when it’s a person of authority it’s hard to know what to do.
                Therapy taught me how to do that!

                1. IndieGir*

                  But it wasn’t the manager who called the doctor’s office, it was HR. The manager was just trying to make sure that someone who was immuno-compromised wasn’t handling dog poop.

                2. Green*

                  But this person said they have a significant life-threatening disease and was undergoing therapy that would render her immunocompromised and likely require further accommodation. Did the employer handle it correctly? Heck no. But this is about the dumbest lie the employee could have made up to get rid of questions and isn’t entitled to deference for that.

                3. Anna*

                  You’re extrapolating a lot from the mention of the employee going to therapy. Which neither the OP nor the HR administrator would have known if the receptionist hadn’t violated HIPAA and the employee still would have been lying about having cancer.

                4. casually commenting*

                  The OP is either very poor at verbal communication, or… Well. Very poor at verbal communication AND an a less-than-forthcoming emotional manipulator herself.

                  >> Are we in the wrong for trying to protect a potentially immunocompromised person?
                  Except the OP isn’t trying to protect this person at all. The OP isn’t even asking for advice or a solution; they’re more interested in getting people on their side.

                  >> she did get written up for the last lie before this. it was the first I could prove.
                  No mention of what the lie was, or if it was even relevant to work. If the OP’s telling the truth — the employee told them “cancer” but did nothing to gain any changes in duties or scheduling — I don’t think they can be fired for that, especially if the employee was being facetious and the OP decided to be deliberately obtuse out of personal animosity. If my nosy supervisor asks what kind of underwear I wear and I say “commando” instead of “boxers”, I doubt the CEO is going to care, even if the supervisor somehow finds out I’m lying.

                  And speaking of the CEO…

                  >> I told her I was sorry she felt this was blown out of proportion but that I forwarded the information I had to the appropriate authorities in our company and that they acted as they saw best.
                  Let’s not forget that the OP immediately informed their supervisor, the HR director, AND THE OWNER OF THE COMPANY.

                  >> I feel like all I see when I look at her is a rattlesnake.
                  This is not a person looking for practical solutions on dealing with a problem employee. This is someone who has personal issues with a problem employee.

              1. Person*

                The manager says at one point here ‘we called’ and then HR is looped in.
                She also says that the worker said something different to HR than to her, but I don’t see anywhere where the worker said “I lied to you.” It seems to me the manager is labelling it as such.
                To be honest I’m finding inconsistencies in the OP’s story. And saying “all she sees is a rattlesnake” when she looks at the worker shows more emotional investment than is appropriate for a manager.
                OP I am sorry to sound unsupportive of you, and maybe I’m wrong, but based on what I’m reading here that’s how you’re coming across to me.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  The letter says “Our adminstrator called her doctor to ask about work restrictions due to chemotherapy.” It’s pretty normal to say “we” when referring to “we, the employer,” but the letter clearly says the administrator called, not the OP.

                  In the comments, the OP also says: “She then told them she had never told me she had cancer, but that she had H. pylori being treated with antibiotics and that she had lied to me about the doxorubicin because I was asking too many questions.”

                2. Person*

                  ah you’re right, I got hung up on different wording in different comments.
                  Alison, I’ve read every single post on your blog, and have never disagreed in any way with anything else, but I’m feeling for the worker in this situation. I’ve had colleagues who aren’t truthful and can attest that they are the worst to work with, but I’ve also worked with people in positions of authority who cross boundaries and put people in really bad positions. In this case, the boundary is a legally protected one and they seemed to think they were in the right to do it – what else is this manager doing regularly?

                3. Xanadu*

                  I’m also going to go out on a limb here. It may be possible that the employee herself does not have a good understanding of what she’s suffering from. H. pylori infections are linked to significant cancer risk, especially if you have a family history of gastric cancer.

                  Fact of the matter is, this is a bell that should not have been run, the employer should never have gone to her doctor to ask about restrictions and should have instead asked the employee.

                4. Effective Immediately*

                  This company had reason to be concerned, though. It’s not like they were pressing her out of nosiness–they were legitimately concerned that she had a condition that could result in death if they allowed her to continue working there. What were they supposed to do?

                  If I worked in, say, a shipping center overseeing people working the line, and an employee said they tore their rotator cuff, but needed no work restrictions, I’d think that was weird and look for documentation that they had no restrictions (because otherwise it’s a liability for me). I don’t see how this is any different. This woman put them in a position where, based on her reported illness, they had no choice but to follow up. This isn’t a nosiness issue, it’s a liability issue.

            2. FairyGetStuffDone*

              I also agree that this could happen. I had a crappy manager who was nosy like that. She asked too many questions, would demand doctors notes, and would even call to verify them. Now I had authorized my medical office to verify I was there. When she got too nosy I would just shut her out and begin working again. She was always disappointed that she could verify them. The problem came when she found out they were a urology clinic. Ugh! The next think I knew I had been nicknamed “Pee-dog”. She found it hysterically funny to tease me about having kidney problems. Yeah…it was a problem situation, t;hank goodness dealth with long ago (HR, investigation, the whole works). Now I’m on to better things.

              1. Annonymouse*

                This is different though.

                Your manager is clearly a huge jerk on a power trip.

                OP was concerned (based on what the employee had told her) that continuing to work at her current job would get them killed or seriously ill.

                It’s understandable they’d seek clarification on this.

                Should they have asked the employee first? Yes.
                If they did repeatedly and were told “nope, all good!” Then I’d seek medical clearance from a dr (in note form) not calling.

      3. Florida*

        Yes, I’m not sure how ADA is relevant here. I suppose it’s possible that she would hire the local aggressive contingency-based attorney. But once that attorney realized that she lied, they would drop the case. Sure that could cause a little bit of a headache to have to deal with that, but not as much of a headache as having an employee you do not trust.

      4. Bibliovore*

        I had a situation with a lying employee, who was also claiming that I was discriminating against her because of a disability. HR and I had meetings with our disability and equity counselor. He was very clear on this point.
        Lying is NOT a disability. Mental illness is and we accommodate for doctors’ and therapists’ visits, for out patient and in patient care through sick leave and FMLA. We accommodate in terms of flexible time, communication adjustments, physical space, job duties, and flextime.
        We continued to to document failure in accuracy and timeliness.
        Failure to meet expectations as specifically noted in job duties, written directions, and due dates.
        We document lateness and absenteeism.
        We document lying about completing work, lying about others’ responsibilities.
        We document how this employee’s work affects the reputation of the department or the work of others.
        We continue the performance improvement plan until there is improvement or the consequences of not improving result in termination.

        1. Anna*

          That is a great list. It’s interesting how people are getting caught up in the therapy thing. Even if the employee had a mental health issue that created a compulsion to lie, it’s not an accommodation to not hold them up to a standard of honesty. You are still required to NOT LIE even if you feel compelled to do it.

    6. Artemesia*

      I hate wimpy HRs who think firing someone for lying is an ADA concern. She has said she lied about having cancer. Who can trust her now?

      1. Mel*

        Picture this. I lie/exaggerate all the time and don’t get fired. I lie about my exact medical condition and get fired. It would be easy to conclude that you may be firing me because of my medical condition and not the lie.

        1. Florida*

          Having a medical condition does not qualify you for ADA protection. Having a disability is what qualifies you for ADA protection.
          Cancer is not necessarily a disability. It would depend on their cancer and their situation.

          1. Mel*

            this is a misconception. You don’t actually have to have a disability to qualify for Ada protections. If you’re simply perceived as disabled you qualify for protections regardless of your true condition .

            1. fposte*

              Yup. But those protections don’t keep you from getting fired for lying about having a disability.

              1. Florida*

                Yep. In all of the situations I ever heard of, I’ve never known lying (or the perception of lying) to be a disability. :)

            2. Florida*

              That’s true. I guess my point is that medical condition is not the right word. Disability is the right word. Even if you are perceived to have a serious medical condition, that alone does not qualify you for ADA protection. You have to have or perceive to have a disability. A lot of people think that a serious medical situation qualifies you for ADA.

      2. Xanadu*

        As I said above, H. pylori infections are linked to significant cancer risk, especially if you have a family history of gastric cancer. It’s very possible the patient herself does not understand the interaction/distinction of “I have this infection and it will likely give me cancer” and “I have a cancer caused by this infection”.

    7. fposte*

      The fact that she named a specific and not exactly well-known med makes me wonder if some thought went into this.

      1. irritable vowel*

        Well, maybe she has a friend or relative who DOES have cancer and borrowed some of the details for her own story.

        1. fposte*

          It’s certainly possible.

          But people who fake cancer (I know this one has just lied about it, at least so far) tend to put a lot of effort into the details and soak them up like a sponge. The combination of lying about it and having that kind of specific knowledge at hand to throw out makes me wonder if she’s not going to start going bigger on these claims.

          1. alter_ego*

            I had an ex who lied to me about having terminal cancer, and I was actually really surprised at how little thought he put into the lie.

        2. CS Rep by Day, Writer by Night*

          My ex-BIL faked cancer for an entire year. He was a a prescription drug addict and used cancer as an explanation for his physical appearance and multiple doctor’s visits. Their church held fundraisers for him and everything – it was awful. I’m quite happy he’s no longer my BIL.

      2. Emilia Bedelia*

        They’re also in veterinary medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised for them to have an awareness of drugs, even ones that are used on people.

        1. Lurker*

          That drug is also used in the veterinary field, so nothing weird with name dropping that particular medication.
          In a prior job, my boss spun a lengthy saga about having cancer. It went on for around 9 months. He was trying to cover his absences from work and home that were really due to visitation with a child he had with another employee. Oh the tangled webs we weave…

          1. Lurker*

            This guy was pretty legendary as horrible bosses go. Unfortunately, it predates my time reading AAM, or else he’d be a surefire contender for the year’s worst boss roundup.

            There was also the time I returned from a work trip to find that he got angry about something and took his frustration out on my desk. With a Sawzall.

            1. Robbenmel*

              Aw, man! That is EPIC! (as a side note, my ex gave me a reciprocating saw for Christmas the year before we split, thinking it was funny. I miss it more than I miss him.)

    8. Pwyll*

      So, the takeaway I think is that your HR staff need to implement a policy, immediately, that you don’t call employees’ doctors unless you have a signed consent form from them and doing so is meant to help find accommodations that the employee herself has asked for.

      But you’ve got an employee who has admitted to lying to you, though perhaps not about cancer but about her health at the very least. Given the minefield here, you’re probably going to want to be talking to a lawyer before taking any adverse action against her.

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think I’d agree with implementing such a broad policy, especially not the signed consent to call–FMLA, for instance, already provides a carefully controlled right to confirm with doctors.

        I do agree that any conversation about the *nature* of an illness should occur only with the employee or with the consent of the employee–but doctors’ offices should be run in a way that enforces that anyway.

        1. Pwyll*

          Perhaps, though FMLA doesn’t cover workplaces of all sizes, and I’d still want a HIPAA authorization form signed by the employee to make it abundantly clear that they are consenting to the discussion, and defining the scope of the discussion. Not only for the doctor (who should be demanding a HIPAA form before even confirming that the patient is theirs) but also to combat any idea that the employee was not aware of the conversation.

          But I’m not implying that talking to a doctor whenever a medical issue is disclosed makes any sense on a policy standpoint. I’m only saying that IF the employer determines they really must talk to the doctor to determine the right accommodations, they never, ever do so without consent in writing and a written, limited scope of inquiry.

        2. Pwyll*

          Also, there’s a big difference between an FMLA certification, and the ADA-required interactive process for creating an accommodation.

          1. fposte*

            Sure–I’m just saying that one of the commonest reasons for leave explicitly allows employers to contact the doctor, though, as I said, not willy-nilly.

            Doctors’ notes are also really common outside of FMLA *and* ADA, just for absences, and I don’t think I’d make a policy that says I need the employee’s consent to confirm that the office provided a note.

            1. Pwyll*

              I think we may just disagree on that. :)

              I wouldn’t want my company contacting an employee’s doctor’s office without consent period.

              And, frankly, if an employer feels the need to confirm the authenticity of doctor notes received (outside of seeking clarification as to workplace restrictions), they clearly have other problems with that specific employee that should be addressed without even needing to get into potential privacy violations.

              1. Lady Kelvin*

                To be fair, it was written on the doctor’s note that they could call the doctor for more information, so she did give permission to call the doctor about the illness.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah the same outcome would have been found, eventually, by pushng employee to obtain restrictions regarding the immunocomprising drug herself, even after the employee said there were none. Maybe even saying she can’t return to work until they get that.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        A place I worked for one time handled the situation this way:

        The person had X problem which probably meant they could not do Y task. But there was plenty of Y task to do and it was a major part of the job. So we told the person that they had to go back and ask the doctor to write a specific note that said doing Y task for most the day would not pose a health problem for this person.

        So people went back to their doc and explained. Sometimes the docs said NO WAY! and sometimes the docs okayed it. It varied due to the physical problem and the particular task.

        While this was an extra step for the employee, at least the employee had control over the flow of information. And once people were at the job for a while, they were able to anticipate this question and ask their doc right away rather than going back a second time.

    9. AnotherAlison*

      It sounds like the OP’s employee is lying, but I’d allow that they could have been confused by what the doctor told them. I mean, my doctors have told me I may have many different, serious things, none of which turned out to be the case. My husband’s doctor once told him they were doing more testing on him for LUNG CANCER after a chest xray for asthma — this was when he was about 25 years old. It turned out the “mass” was his nipple. My take on things is that medical professionals are fairly rushed. Doctors say things far too loosely, and they always order a lot of tests because of malpractice, so it’s easy for patient to get mislead. Not that this is the case here, because saying you’re starting chemo is a stretch from a scenario where the doctor has ordered more tests to rule out or confirm a myriad of things, one of which could be cancer.

      1. Aurion*

        I don’t think we can interpret the situation as “OP’s employee genuinely misunderstood her doctor” because OP said the employee “lied to [OP] about the doxorubicin because [OP] was asking too many questions”. That’s not acting from a position of good faith.

      2. Snork Maiden*

        Hold on. I’m still processing the fact trained medical professionals mistook a nipple for a tumour.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Yeah my BF recently got the full pat down from TSA because of some scar tissue in his shoulder.

      3. Anon MD/DO*

        I’m going to stop you right there.

        The physician, per the OP, was not directly involved in this chain of events. The physician did not violate HIPAA – that was an (admittedly HUGE) mistake on the part of the receptionist. Additionally, there is a distinct difference between an H. Pylori infection and stomach cancer. H. Pylori is a very treatable condition treated with several different medications, including acid reducers and antibiotics, never doxorubicin – subsequently it is highly unlikely that the name of that medication would have come up in the office encounter.

        And you somehow extrapolated that the patient was confused by the physician into thinking they had cancer and had to be treated by that medication?

        As a physician, I would certainly be responsible for the actions of my receptionist and would fully shoulder the blame for that. However, I cannot take responsibility for the patient lying – that is a conscious decision made on the part of the patient, and it is extremely unlikely her physician encouraged her to lie. (To that end, she may not have even seen a physician – she might have been treated by a PA or NP.) Furthermore, I’m not particularly pleased at being told “I say things far too loosely.” Please don’t further malign my profession by making these sorts of assumptions over extremely little information.

        1. AnonNP*

          Please don’t also malign your fellow health care providers (NPs or PAs) for saying we encouraged her to lie either. I agree this thread is placing unfair blame on her provider for violating HIPAA when it is clearly the receptionist who did so. While we do shoulder that responsibility for our staff, it is not appropriate to pass the blame along to another provider (and pretending we are more likely to provide inaccurate information- which this appears to imply- to patients is a grossly incorrect mischaracterization.) I agree the above statement is a misrepresentation of doctors (and medical professionals in general.) The majority of us are not “saying things far too loosely” and “order a lot of tests because of malpractice,’ and just because of one experience it is inappropriate overgeneralize a profession

          1. Take Me 2 Atlanta*

            Thank you for writing out that first sentence. Thank you thank you thank you.

          2. Anonsie*

            Malign the profession? No, no one made her lie, but the note above (while severe) is not indicating that. It’s raising the possibility that the employee misunderstood something through the course of diagnostics that, being a chronic exaggerator, lead to the circus that took place. This is not the provider’s fault and no one is claiming that it is, nor would it have been even close to an honest mistake. We get that the employee here was fabricating something.

            However, a lack of patient education– especially due to decreasing time with patients and increasing case volumes –is a legitimate problem that every provider or peripheral health care professional I have ever worked with has been well aware of. It’s not a personal insult to acknowledge this reality and general possibility. The only way the profession can be maligned here is by a staunch insistence, to the detriment of actual care quality, that providers are so absolute and infallible that the very mention of problems with roots at their level is defamation.

    10. Observer*

      OK, I hit post before refreshing the page.

      So, assuming the receptionist had the correct information, she’s a liar and you have a headache. But, the truth is that that call put you in a very bad spot. Sure, your suspicion was reasonable, but all you can really do in such a case is ask her to put it in writing that she has no restrictions. Calling the doctor’s office was out of line – if she really did have cancer, it would still be her call. And, the doctor’s office was wildly out of line. Not that it’s really your problem, but it’s just the kind of thing that makes the whole thing more messy.

      I’d be shocked if any lawyer would take the case as it stands – out of line and illegal are not the same thing. Had you fired her, maybe. You’d certainly have a very hard time proving fraud – the note was apparently legitimate, and she didn’t ask for anything more than the time her doctor told her to be out for the issue she actually did have. But, if you didn’t claim fraud and just fired her for exaggerations, I can’t imagine she’d have a case. But, she might have enough that a lawyer might take it on.

      1. Bwmn*

        I agree with this.

        In many ways, I think that the article on Mental Health from yesterday could largely be applied to just about any illness that we’re not wildly comfortable discussing with HR. Whether it’s mental health, an STD, or whatever – I think that there are often lots of feelings about having to explain illness as being “genuine” or “worthy”, and it leads so many of us down an awkward path with HR. Not that it condones lying, but I get where it can become a slippery slope.

        1. Meg Murry*

          Yes, I wonder if the employee made up those details to tell OP because she didn’t want to say “I’ve got a stomach problem and I’m having [mental health issue that I don’t want to talk about] and I took a couple days off to see a therapist”.

          It’s not right, but I could see how it could spiral out of control quickly.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            But why on earth would anyone rather say they have cancer than a bacterial infection in their gut?

            1. Meg Murry*

              I meant cancer rather than mental illness – because maybe they didn’t think the infection would be worthy of 4 days off of work?

              1. Anna*

                The employee wouldn’t even need to bring up the therapy. And people go to therapy for ALL sorts of reasons, not only because they have a serious mental health issue. The infection would have been enough without making more of an issue out of it.

      2. Loose Seal*

        And since the employee says they lied because OP was pressing for information, I think the higher-ups need to examine how much discussion they have with their employees after the employee returns from an absence caused by illness. Were you pressing too hard? Did you treat this absence differently than you treat other employees’ absences? Did you make the employee uncomfortable by wanting to know details about their health?

        I get wanting a dr’s note after a four-day absence. I’ve worked in many places that required a note after three days so that part wasn’t uncommon. But you should have merely accepted the note and asked if they needed accommodation and that’s it.

        1. Kate M*

          Yeah, this would make me really uncomfortable. I mean I get that saying you have cancer is a whole different ballgame then saying you were out with the flu or something when you weren’t. But I don’t think that employees should be required to disclose what their medical condition is, especially when it could end up being in the realm of mental health issues/sexual health issues/pregnancy issues, etc. I might make up a story (not cancer obviously) if I had an employer pressing me about that. So OP, definitely rethink how much you press employees for medical information. That seems way out of line to me. If she said she had cancer, you still could have pulled her off dangerous work, right? Even if she said she didn’t need any accommodations, you could have probably decided without calling her doctor that you weren’t comfortable with someone on chemo being around whatever work situation would be dangerous. (Although someone correct me if I’m wrong legally.)

          That said, of course she should be fired for lying about cancer, especially considering she’s had other issues there. But you and your work should rethink your behavior and processes too.

          1. Anna*

            People who lie (as this person has done before) tend to panic if pressed for too many details, so frankly I’m not too concerned that the OP was being too nosy.

        2. Kelly F*

          Any job I’ve worked at didn’t ask for details. You had X number of sick days and usually you just let them know you were using them. Maybe you have the flu, maybe you have Dr. apt., and my bosses never asked for details. When I was a teacher, two days in a row, OR the day before or after a holiday required a doctor’s note, but again, no details given, although one from Planned Parenthood would look different than one from the local doctor.

      3. sunny-dee*

        if she really did have cancer, it would still be her call

        Nope, not at all. If working in a given environment would be a risk, it is entirely the right and responsibility of the employer to tell her not to come back to work until she is able to perform the duties. In certain environments, it’s even a requirement of OSHA.

        1. Kate M*

          Agreed. But the workplace could still have made this call without calling her doctor. They could have taken her claim of cancer at face value and said “since you’re on chemo, you can’t be in this work situation.”

      4. Kyrielle*

        Actually that call would seem to put them on shakier ground *because* the receptionist at the doctor violated HIPAA – specifically, she mentioned a “therapist” and mental health is generally stigmatized. The employee could complain the adverse action was because they discovered she needed some sort of mental health treatment, which she had chosen not to disclose to them herself for fear of consequences….

        (Whether it is true or not; she’s now in a position to potentially claim that, it would seem?)

        1. OhNo*

          Ooh, that’s a good point. If the employer got information from the slip-up that they wouldn’t otherwise have had, that might put them at higher risk of a lawsuit or complaint. I guess I’m not sure how exactly one would play that, but I’m sure there are lawyers out there that could find a way.

          Now I see why HR wants to wait before doing any firing. Better to have more evidence of lying, poor performance, or ethical issues to justify this, just in case.

          1. A Non*

            That’s my thought. If the employee’s behavior is this egregious, it’s not going to be long before she gets caught in another lie. Document everything and fire her for that.

        2. Observer*

          Good point. What I meant was the the HIPAA violation itself is not the OP’s problem. But becoming privy to information that they aren’t supposed to have definitely presents significant potential complications.

      5. Chinook*

        “Calling the doctor’s office was out of line – if she really did have cancer, it would still be her call. ”

        But the OP stated that the doctor’s note stated that they should call if they need more information. I would think that is giving the employer written permission to call about what was written on the note. How is that out of line?

        1. fposte*

          It’s not permission from the *employee*. As evidenced by the fact that this doctor’s office shot their mouth off where they shouldn’t, an employer can’t assume that a doctor’s office is going to handle the legal stuff correctly for them.

          1. Juli G.*

            But the employer did nothing illegal. They don’t need permission from anyone to contact the doctor’s office. It’s the medical provider’s responsibility to gain permission before sharing info.

            1. fposte*

              They actually *do* need permission–or conditions to be met–for specific queries under ADA and FMLA. What they actually did didn’t end up being a violation because those aren’t going to apply after all, but it’s a really bad practice to ask for information that it’s often illegal to ask for unless you’re sure (worker’s comp situation) that it doesn’t apply in this case. I don’t think it was thought through that clearly here–I think they asked without realizing they could be in breach of the law.

          2. Rusty Shackelford*

            And yet, if an employer is given a note by their employee, that says “call the doctor’s office if you have questions,” why should the onus be on *them* to make sure no one provides information they shouldn’t? There are enough health professionals (and non professionals who work in medical offices) who don’t seem to have a good grasp on HIPAA; it seems unfair to put the responsibility on the person who is given a doctor’s note that says “call me.”

            1. fposte*

              Nonetheless, the law isn’t going to care that the doctor said it was okay for them to violate FMLA or the ADA–it’s on the employer to follow the law.

              1. Rusty Shackelford*

                I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing. I’m talking about the employer calling the doctor (prompted by the instruction to do exactly that, which was handed to them by the employee, who therefore can’t pretend it was done behind her back) to clarify whether it’s safe for the employee to work. The doctor’s office should have said either “yes, we have her permission to discuss this with you, and we’ve determined it’s safe” or “we can’t confirm anything regarding this patient and you need to talk to her.” It’s not the employer’s fault that someone at the doctor’s office was too ignorant to do that. So what law did the employer violate?

                1. TL -*

                  Right, but my guess is the doctor meant it in a, “We can confirm that OP was sick for 4 days and visited us over the phone” kind of way, not a “please call us for illness and treatment details” kind of way.

                  I wouldn’t read a note like that as I could call the office and get any information I wanted. I would read it as, “Oh, if I needed to double check/procure more documentation, I can call the doctor’s office and they’ll fax over a note that includes the dates and the signature I need to file with HR.”

                2. fposte*

                  I’m not seeing the difference–written permission from the *doctor* isn’t enough to make it legal under FMLA or ADA if that’s where it’s falling. Clarification has very specific and narrow meanings under ADA that wouldn’t include this–you can’t just call up and ask if it’s safe for the employee to do X.

                  There really are some pretty serious restrictions about calling employees’ doctors when federal law is involved.

        2. CH*

          Chinook I am responding to your question but feel my response is to all the responses related to your comment. I’m not trying to stir things up but I’m just throwing another idea into the mix…

          I think Chinook’s statement is correct but in a very gray area. When the employee physically got this doctor’s note, the employee must have seen it prior to giving it to OP. The employee had the opportunity to review the note and request the doctor make changes to the note’s veriage beforehand. It would be a broad stretch of a defense but I would think OP could argue that he was given permission to speak with the doctor or at the very least ask general health/ cancer questions (not related to employees specific situation) to the doctor that would not violate any HIPPA laws.

          1. CH*

            my spellcheck uses it’s own version of the dictionary

            – that should say “the note’s verbiage…”

          2. casually commenting*

            Nope. Not remotely. No such thing as “general health questions” not covered by HIPAA. You have to sign an actual medical release form for that. I’m pretty sure the only thing the doctor’s office can do is say “Yes, this is an accurate copy of the note in our records”.

    11. Joseph*

      Ah. The history of exaggeration and lying makes it a bit more palatable to contact the doctor’s office…but still doesn’t really justify it. Again, it’s not really your call as to whether she has work restrictions or not, nor your place to contact the doctor’s office. You can (and should!) ask her directly if it will affect her, then directly raise the question of whether she will be immunocompromised in a way that may put her health at risk. Then you document that conversation, in written memo format that’s dated and with file copies to both her and HR.

      If you have an employee who you don’t trust anyways, that’s the real issue here that needs to be addressed.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        If you have an employee who you don’t trust anyways, that’s the real issue here that needs to be addressed.

        I tend to agree. I’m curious what else she’s lied about, though.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I have noticed over the years that problematic employees seem to end up staying and staying because situations get mishandled and no one wants to fire the employee because of current mishandled situation.

        As Joseph is saying, OP, don’t let her confusion become your group’s confusion. She will continue to have a whirlwind of confusion around her. Encourage your group to stay focused on the core issues.

    12. Anon Moose*

      Wait wait wait though- so she didn’t tell you she had cancer, she just told you she was on doxorubicin? She was that specific? Isn’t it also possible that she mixed up the name of the drug (with doxycyclin or azithromyacin or another drug or drug generic name)? Did you make the jump to “I have cancer” or did she?? Isn’t it possible that she was tested for cancer but found to have a stomach infection instead? There’s such a thing as differential diagnosis, tests sometimes take longer and planned treatments change. Is it possible that she mentioned or misstated that she’d had a cancer test (something I could see myself doing because woah would that freak me out even if it just turned out to be a stomach bug) and you misinterpreted and ran with it? It sounds like she maybe exaggerated or misstated in the moment but… why the heck were you inquiring so minutely into her health checkup that you asked what specific drug she was on?? It really sounds like you are also violating her privacy (not to mention the call to her doctor without telling her?!) and you should back the hell off. Like, I don’t care what you think of your employee, this is way too much information and inappropriate speculation about their health for you to be having. I also have a hard time understanding why someone would lie about a stomach infection- to what end?

      1. OP*

        No, she stated to me that she had stomach cancer, had met with her doctor and her “cancer doctor”, had a relative die of stomach cancer, was starting doxorubicin and radiation. This wall all unsolicited information that ended in being handed a super generic doctors note, which I forwarded to my HR and administration. The concern was then that I know doxorubicin to be an extremely immunosuppressive drug and I was worried about that level of immunosuppresion being surrounded by feces all day.

        1. Anon Moose*

          I still think its possible your employee could have themselves been wrong/mistaken about their diagnosis, or been freaking out about it without full information in hand. Due to family history, especially. If there’s a family history of this kind of cancer and employee has an infection that leads to stomach cancer… I bet there was a “just to be safe” test.

          Here’s where I’m coming from: So, if I had a family history of a serious illness like say, breast cancer and had to do all of these tests for an infection and they also found and were testing a breast lump and I was still waiting on the results… well, I think I could very possibly jump to a conclusion or talk about it as a “oh, well I guess now I have cancer” because due to family history I would think it was a probable thing. And I would be emotional and freaking out. I wouldn’t necessarily blab to my supervisor but its not completely out of the realm of possibility. I could see blabbing about it while confusing “possible diagnosis” with “probable diagnosis”to a close coworker though, and then feeling sheepish if I found out later that I definitely was just freaking out in the moment and it didn’t end up coming to pass.

          I guess you know your employee best, and like you said this may be a pattern or a play for sympathy but I think even if they exaggerated, you’re assuming their motive was deception when it doesn’t necessarily add up to that. (And you overreacted and overstepped too.)

          1. Lily in NYC*

            I just do not understand why so many people are defending this person. I’ve known several pathological exaggerators and this seems like a textbook example.

            1. Kate M*

              It’s obvious that the employee was way out of line/did a fireable offense by claiming to have cancer. I’m in no way defending that. But it’s possible that more than one person was in the wrong here, and it’s still possible that the company needs to change their procedures on how to handle medical issues.

              1. Lily in NYC*

                I’m just surprised how many people are coming up with unrealistic scenarios to explain the liar’s behavior, even after seeing the update that it was a blatant lie.

                1. Christopher Tracy*

                  I’m not. People don’t want to believe that anyone would be so awful as to make up a cancer diagnosis. I mean, you’ve got to be pretty low down to do something like that.

          2. Aurion*

            I feel like this interpretation is stretching the realm of credibility. Let’s say you, theoretically speaking, was in the position of OP’s employee. Maybe your family has a history of cancer and you’re nervous about your diagnosis. But if you’re still in the testing stage and waiting for the official diagnosis, isn’t it a bit of a leap to tell your supervisor “I have cancer, and I will be starting radiation and very specific chemotherapy drug?”

            I can even buy the patient emotionally telling people they have cancer, but going to specifics like the exact drug and radiation therapy…that sounds off to me. Maybe if the doctor specifically says “you have cancer, we will start you on X drug” the patient would obsessively google said drug (I know I would), but at the diagnosis stage I don’t think many patients would be googling the drug options, choosing one, and then announcing said theoretical choice to their colleagues, all without a true medical diagnosis from a medical professional. That sounds much more like a planned lie to me.

          3. Anna*

            Stomach cancer is not the sort of thing you misunderstand your doctor telling you. Cancer anything is not something you misunderstand your doctor telling you about.

            She also didn’t jump between possible and probable; she described the treatment she was currently receiving. The OP didn’t overreact or overstep; HR did. Sometimes a liar is just a liar.

          4. LQ*

            I actually had the exact situation you are talking about, and I was entirely freaking out.

            “I have a medical appointment Friday morning and I’m not sure if I’ll be in later, I may have some other stuff come up next week.”
            “Ok, just shoot me an email so I know, I hope everything is ok.”

            Not, I have it and will be taking x drug. Even if I was sharier, my doctor wasn’t talking about possible treatment drugs when I had the initial appointment and they didn’t even know if it was an infection or cancer. That I would have had to come up with all on my own. That for me shows a step over the line from panic and overshare possibly to whoah, that’s a whole different monster.

          5. Effective Immediately*

            Oo, you know, I work with a patient population with extremely limited health literacy and I can totally see one of them doing something like this.

            Many people, for instance, have pre-cancerous cells on their cervix and hear, “ZOMG YOU HAVE CANCER”

            I was fully in the “fire her lying ass” camp (having known plenty of people who faked cancer and miscarriages–in one case, both in the span of a week) but OP’s description gives me pause, just based on my interaction with patients.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          This whole thing is bizarre, but especially the bit about giving you a note with a “call if you need more information” line on it. Because if I was making something up, the last thing I’d want is to invite them to call my doctor!

          It sounds like the employee is definitely lying (especially with the pattern of lying), and the whole thing is extremely weird, but that part in particular is making me scratch my head.

          1. Observer*

            This really is one of the weirder clusters of inappropriate behavior I’ve seen here. You have the employer stepping over the line to call the doctor. You have the employee telling a really bizarre lie, which really is not adequately explained by the OP’s behavior (or any of the strained scenarios people have suggested). And you have a doctor’s office that seems to be operating as though they were still in the ear;y 1990’s, pre HIPAA. The verbiage on the note is even worse than the receptionist spilling the beans. What on earth were they thinking, putting something like that on a note to anyone other than the patient?!

            I don’t know who is worse, the employee or the doctor’s office. But both of them are totally worse than the OP. I have sooo much sympathy for the OP’s comment earlier that “I wouldn’t want to be her doctor right now, but I don’t want to e her manager, either.”

            1. Not So NewReader*

              This happens when an employer or people working with the person get caught up in their upset and upheaval.

              Years ago a child died and it made the news. We were all upset when a coworker said she was a close relative. She asked for time off to go the funeral and, of course, no problem. So she took the time. Then newspaper published the date for the upcoming funeral. We never did figure out what she did with her days off. And we never figured out why she did not need time off for the dates published in the paper. But some people spent a lot of time talking about this and productivity suffered.

              There were several similar stories about this person.

              So they promoted her.


          2. Alix*

            I’ve known too many conmen, I guess – my first thought is she included that in the hopes that management would call, so that they’d be potentially on the hook for firing her if the lie came out.

            I mean, sure, we all know they can fire her anyway for being a liar, but as others have noted, it could look like a violation of her rights, and it’s evidently scared management into keeping her on.

            Sounds like she had a nice little trap there. Either her note got taken at face value, or the employer verifies, but has to worry about a lawsuit.

        3. She's a Lady*

          One more theory to throw out there: what if she is lying now about NOT having cancer. What if she has cancer, the employer called the doctor to verify that the employee was able to work, got some misinformation from the receptionist (as others pointed out, it happens), then when the employee was confronted with the conflicting information, changed her story because she was concerned about being able to return to work if she tells the truth about her cancer. Not saying this is even likely, just that it is important to have a consistent return to work policy in place.

          1. Meg Murry*

            While this sounds crazy, I’ve been in a scenario like this, and I could understand the impulse to lie. I worked at a place where we used lots of chemicals, and using them was part of our job description. When a co-worker got pregnant, she got a note from her doctor that said “Sue can’t work with Chemicals A, B and C during her pregnancy” – and A, B and C were chemicals that were routinely used in our lab (and are, in fact, not a good idea to use when pregnant). When Sue took this note to her boss and HR, HR’s response was “She can’t do her job description? Out on unpaid leave until she can return to work with no restrictions.” Sue got short term disability to cover the time when she was truly disabled and unable to work at all (the 6-8 weeks immediately after her son was born), but she was on unpaid leave otherwise her entire pregnancy.

            So when I got pregnant, I did NOT get a note from my doctor or talk to HR, but rather went first to my boss and said “I can’t go out on unpaid leave, I can’t afford it and I know you have non-lab work I can do”. And the boss agreed, and over the next few days we made a plan for how to have my lab work covered by the rest of the team and what non-lab work I could do in it’s place. Then we got the buy-in from her boss, and presented that plan to HR. But I never officially got a note that said “can’t do lab work” – just the ok of my boss and her boss to not take on those tasks, and to trade off with other co-workers. But if HR or the safety manager had gotten wind and said “Meg, I hear you are pregnant and can’t work in the lab. Is that true?” in those first few days before we had everything ironed out? My gut reaction would have been to say “I’m fine, I can work in the lab, don’t worry about me” – because I was in a panic about how we could afford to have a baby and I desperately could not afford to take unpaid time off of work.

            So while it does seem like this employee was lying initially to OP and then admitted she exaggerated to HR, I could absolutely see a scenario where an employee would backpedal if she thought her ability to work and earn an income was at stake.

            1. She's a Lady*

              As a safety consultant, I’ve seen far more people try to break restrictions and come back to work early than I’ve seen people try to stretch an injury into a vacation. I encourage all employers to have a temporary restricted duty position ready, even if it’s just annual inventory, there are things that need to get done that usually don’t. I’m sorry you had such a hard time, but I’m glad things seem to have worked out.

      2. Aurion*

        Looks like the employee specifically told OP and two other employees that she has cancer, then later recanted to the HR/administrative team.

    13. neverjaunty*

      Oh, I see the problem. Don’t listen to the HR referral service. Talk to a lawyer who specializes in employment matters. The referral service is interested in being as conservative as possible because it’s no skin off their nose if you retain a terrible employee.

        1. Meg Murry*

          Yes, this.

          Also, in the meantime, she has admitted she lied to you, and that she has a history of lying/exaggeration. If you can’t fire her immediately, this lie seems PIP worthy. You can put in the PIP that any further instances of lying or exaggeration will be grounds for dismissal – and if a person lied about cancer, she’ll probably lie about something else really soon, at which time you can fire her.

        2. AnotherHRPro*

          Yes. As her manager, you get to decide if you want to terminate. You are asking for advice on how best to do this and to understand your risks. No one else is responsible (HR, employment lawyer, etc.) for the decision to terminate. So you are not asking permission. You are asking for how to do it and to understand the risks of your plan.

          1. Pwyll*

            This is a really important point that I think gets lost sometimes when we’re dealing with HR consultants and lawyers.

    14. Vicki*

      ADA concerns.

      She. Lied.
      (Does the ADA cover stomach ulcers?)
      It doesn’t matter. She lied.

  12. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I work under HIPAA regs every day, and you’d think health care workers would know better but most don’t. People who aren’t health care workers are worse!

    That’s why your office and the receptionist were extremely out of line.

    Just this week, a TV reporter asked me for the medical files of someone in the news, and he tried to tell me HIPAA didn’t apply because of those circumstances.

    For real.

    1. Dan*

      Well… he’s going to tell you what it takes to get what he wants, even if he’s knowingly telling you a lie. That’s how “social engineering” works.

      The “for real” part is how many people will actually fall for that line.

    2. Loose Seal*

      Well, to be fair, the OP’s office can ask the dr’s office anything (not that they should!). HIPAA compliance is all on the dr’s office to maintain.

    3. neverjaunty*

      In my experience it tends to be all the way over to the opposite – “Sorry, HIPAA” = “I know you have a right to that information, but I don’t want to be bothered right now so please go away.”

      1. Judy*

        Insurance Co: “I’m sorry, I can’t divulge treatment and claims information without permission from the patient because of HIPAA.”
        Me: “So you want my 9 month old to verify that I can talk to you about a claim you denied for his care? Can it wait until after his nap?”

  13. Lucky*

    True story: a legal assistant at my old firm (many years before I worked there, which was 10+ years ago) faked having cancer and took an extended leave, during which the firm continued paying her salary. Then one day, one of the partners saw her while he was coming back from lunch in the business district. He thought she looked suspiciously healthy, so he followed her into an office building, watched the lighted numbers above the elevator she went into, then followed her up to that floor. He saw her through a window, hanging up her jacket and stashing her handbag in a desk! She had taken a new job, while she was on paid leave from her old job! Here’s the most hilarious part, he rang the bell at the front desk, which was unmanned, and hid behind a ficus so he could yell “aha!” when she came out. Which he did. That’s all I remember – I don’t think he told her boss (another attorney, someone he knew), just cut her from the payroll.

    Same firm, same guy, told other stories (legends of law practice in the 70s and 80s) of having 3 martini lunches with judges in a bar frequented by local mobsters, and catching attorneys & staff playing “the duck game” on the sofas in the upstairs law library. The firm sold the building to the Archdiocese in the early 2000s and I hear the bishop made the library into his private office suite, so that one always made me laugh.

    1. CM*

      Did he put a ficus in the law library too? I imagine this guy spending hours each day hiding behind ficuses, waiting to jump out and catch people.

    2. Mike C.*

      One thing about the “three martini lunches” of decades past – the martini of the past was around a 4-5 ounce serving, while modern martinis are twice that.

    3. Kristin (Germany)*

      I’m giggle-snorting at the image of the partner hiding behind the ficus. Classic!

      1. ggg*

        The ficus is a particularly great detail. It’s like Encyclopedia Brown caught Bugs Meany red-handed.

        I knew someone who did this too. A higher up caught him at a meeting on behalf of another company.

        Still another person (who I do not know) had two jobs for years. He would show up to one office, leave for “offsite meetings,” do the same at the other office, and then go to the movies all day. But he was clearly smart enough to produce enough to get decent performance reviews at both places. He only got caught when a THIRD company did a background check on him. Lesson: don’t be greedy!

    4. Mookie*

      My favorite bit is the “aha!” He earned that “aha” with all the surveillance he did.

    5. Smh*

      I think him following her like that is pretty creepy, to be honest. Regardless of his intentions or the fact that she lied about taking a new job, stalking is stalking.

  14. Observer*

    I’m going to go with all of the people who are saying that you need to treat what the receptionist said with a large inch of salt.

    For one thing, it makes a real difference whether the receptionist said “we can’t confirm anything”, “I don’t know of any records” or “This is definitely in our records, even though it would be if it were true.” (or various versions of each.)

    For another, it’s more than slightly possible that the receptionist doesn’t have the information – or even access to that information. I’ve seen receptionists provide wildly incorrect answers when they didn’t have the information requested. The way your administrator requested the information could have played into something like that as well.

    I’m not saying that this IS what happened. I am saying that this is not only possible, but likely. So you really need to follow this up without the assumption that the employee was lieing.

    1. Brandy in TN*

      Your correct, it would take a nurse at least to get on the phone and discuss this properly. It depends on how long the call was, short, or long enough to get MRs pulled up and went thru. I deal with MRs daily and would still have to delve deep into a chart to look for specific issues.

  15. AnotherHRPro*

    Alison’s advice, as always, is very good. Yes, your company didn’t handle this well and neither did the doctor’s office. You have a right to be concerned about your employee’s health. Just the way it was handled wasn’t appropriate. However, do not use this as an excuse to avoid dealing with the situation. You are were you are and you now have a responsibility to determine if your employee lied or if this is a misunderstanding. Calmly talk to the employee, demonstrating empathy and ask what is going on. Explain that as you now have conflicting information you need to get new verification that the original doctors note was accurate.

    And I 100% agree with Alison’s advice about informing your thinking based on what you already know about this individual. You are allowed to judgement and make decisions based on that. If this employee has a history of being dishonest you need to consider that.

    Good luck in dealing with this. I know it is stressful when an employee is going around telling people they are going to file a lawsuit. And while that should make you cautious, it should not stop you from doing your job and addressing your concerns with the employee.

    1. OP*

      At this point, I know she lied about the cancer. Well, either that or she is lying now about not having cancer as she has told our administrator and HR person that she does not have cancer and did not tell me that. I know that she told me she had stomach cancer, and she told several other employees that same day. So, she either lied to me or she lied to my HR team. Either way, there’s a big lie in here somewhere.

      And she does have a history of smaller dishonesties. I just never anticipated any thing like this!

      1. sunny-dee*

        I have not one, but TWO aunts who faked life-threatening illnesses when their marriages hit a rocky patch as a way of getting sympathy.

        1. Laurel Gray*

          WOW. WOW. WOW.

          I have faked cramps in high school to get out of a test I was ill prepared for in high school.
          I have faked car troubles to show up late to work (many years ago) when I was out drinking the night before.
          I have faked being full when offered food that did not look appetizing.

          But life-threatening illness? I can’t imagine!

          1. Merry and Bright*

            I’ve done the food thing too. I tell myself it’s a social politeness but it’s mostly for random homemade stuff in the office etc.

          2. Allison*

            Seriously, the biggest health-related lie I’ve told an employer was vaguely saying I wasn’t feeling well and needed to work from home when I was having depression or anxiety-related issues.

            1. fposte*

              And I wouldn’t see that as a lie–it seems absolutely true to me. It’s not a full and detailed account, but work doesn’t need a full and detailed account. It’s the truthful information they need in that moment.

        2. alter_ego*

          I had an ex lie about having terminal cancer to get me to keep having sex with him after we broke up.
          It’s really really shitty to be on the receiving end of.

              1. alter_ego*

                haha, yeah, I figured you meant him. Luckily, while I did believe him at first, it still didn’t seem like a good enough reason to continue sleeping with someone who I broke up with in part because we weren’t sexually compatible. So while I emotionally supported him for way longer than I should have, at least I never had pity sex with him.

      2. Jinx*

        This whole situation is so bizarre. It sounds like she initially lied and is backtracking by claiming she never said it in the first place? But why? 0_0

        1. OP*

          I think it was a bid for sympathy and she somehow didn’t think she’d get caught? I don’t know.

          1. my two cents*

            I actually knew an older woman who had faked having cancer treatments for literally YEARS. She spent a lot of time at the community theater and she only had to convince a handful of other older ‘adults’ as the majority of the actors/staff were high school or college aged. I do think she only got away with it for so long because it was back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s before everything was posted to the internet – she could make up details without fear of someone being able to immediately fact-check from their phone.

          2. sam*

            Oy. That’s when you fake food poisoning, or a migraine, or a 24/48/72 hour stomach bug, or a sick grandmother in Topeka (Not that I’ve *EVER* done those things either)!

      3. Artemesia*

        I have a relative who always dramatizes every diagnosis — and clearly the very word ‘diagnosis’ gives her a little thrill. H Pylori is common and is a cause of both ulcers and stomach cancer; of course most people who have it don’t get cancer. A drama queen might easily work from this diagnosis to ‘swan about, pause dramatically,declaim she is getting treatment for cancer’ when she is just getting antibiotics for a bog standard stomach infection that probably half the population have without knowing it and which is rarely diagnosed unless someone has an ulcer or similar stomach issue.

        I don’t know what the procedures ought to be here, but given the danger of working in the kennel while immunocompromised, surely there ought to be a procedure for getting medical documentation and not just relying on the statement of the employee. If she said it was ‘fine’ and later contracted a serious infection, presumably the workplace would be liable. And of course receptionists should not be handing out this information. But there ought to be a procedure to get it done.

        1. fposte*

          I’m not sure the workplace would be liable if it’s exposure safe for most people and they had no reason to believe the employee wasn’t in the group for whom it would be safe.

            1. fposte*

              Sure, but you can’t protect yourself against the possibility that every single employee is sick, and you certainly can’t call all your employees’ doctors to make sure it’s okay for them to work in vet med. It’s really not likely that any suit would find for the employee without more proof than just “I swear I said something and mysteriously never emailed it.”

          1. Juli G.*

            I don’t know. If a non-exempt employee tells you it’s fine with them to work unpaid OT, you can’t just accept that. And because there is some medical knowledge, they didn’t believe she was safe. I can sympathize with an employer not wanting to expose someone to something they thought was life threatening.

      4. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Honestly, when you see small dishonesties, they are worth treating as Big Deals. Not because they will always necessarily lead to a big ones like this, but because you can’t/shouldn’t have people on your staff who tell you even small lies. Going forward, I’d say treat small dishonesties as disqualifying on their own.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          Yes, this. You can recover from almost anything with me except lying. Then we’re never going to be ok. We might move past the incident but you won’t regain my full trust.

        2. Kate M*

          But are small dishonesties every ok when you don’t want to disclose a medical situation? Like if you’re having mental health problems and need a few days to deal with it, can you say you have the flu? If I were ever trying to get pregnant, I’m not going to give a straight answer about that to my employer if pressed.

          1. fposte*

            I wouldn’t. I’d go for vagueness. Otherwise when you *do* get the flu and need to be out for ten days, it’s not going to go well.

            1. Kate M*

              Of course you start with vagueness, but if people keep asking questions you might need to make something up. Your work shouldn’t be asking the questions in the first place, but if they do press, I don’t think it’s the fault of the employee if they have to come up with an excuse.

              And most people here before have said it’s ok to make something up about having an interview. Of course you can just start out by saying “I have an appointment,” but if pressed it can turn into “I have a doctor’s/dentist appointment.” I think it only becomes an issue when workplaces press for information they shouldn’t be asking for in the first place.

              1. fposte*

                There are situations where I find a lie more understandable than others. But your initial question was a straight out lie about being out for the flu with no prompting. And I wouldn’t do that.

                1. Kate M*

                  I didn’t say straight out lie without prompting, I said is it ever acceptable to say. I just take issue with the idea that small dishonesties are always worth treating like a “Big Deal” and are worth disqualifying on their own.

                  And even Alison’s past articles have said that it’s ok to say you have a doctor’s/dentist appointment if you have an interview if you’re pressed and really have to tell your work something. (Not trying to call you out Alison, just saying that there are degrees of dishonesty I think, and don’t think that minor ones should necessarily be treated as big ones.) I think there’s a big difference in claiming to have cancer and claiming to have the flu.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I think it’s fine to tell a minor white lie when your employer puts you in a position where they’re forcing you to answer a question they have no grounds to demand an answer to — like how you’re spending your PTO or the details of your illness yesterday. (In fact, I talk about this in a post coming tomorrow, re: getting time off to interview.)

                When I said that the OP should take even small lies seriously, I was talking about things that actually matter to the work — like someone saying they mailed a form when they didn’t really mail it until five minutes after the reminder conversation, or misrepresenting what a coworker said — that kind of thing.

          2. Florida*

            If you told me, “I have a doctor’s appointment” or “I have a medical situation I need to take care of” or something like that, and I later found out you were at the fertility clinic or psychologist, I wouldn’t care.
            If you told me that you had the flu and I later found out you were at the fertility clinic or at the psychologist, I would wonder if you were lying every time you told me you had the flu (or some other common, non-stigmatized condition).
            I think it’s OK to be vague. It’s even OK to say, “I’d rather not discuss it.” It’s not OK to lie about it.

            1. Kate M*

              If I saw someone at any type of doctor when they told me they had the flu, whether it was a therapist’s office or fertility clinic, I absolutely wouldn’t care. I would figure that they weren’t comfortable talking about their medical issues and felt pressured to come up with something. As long as it’s still a medical reason (and I don’t run into them at an amusement park or something), I truly truly don’t think it matters one bit, to me at least.

              And if I ever say “I’d rather not discuss it” when asked about a medical condition, I feel like people are going to jump to bad conclusions, because if it’s not a big deal, then why not just say it? If someone doesn’t want to say it, then they must have something to hide/it must be a big deal/it must be embarrassing. (Not the way my mind works obviously, but some people do. I can’t fault people for not wanting to deal with the office busybodies/gossip.)

              1. Anna*

                Telling your manager that you have a doctor’s appointment is literally not telling them your medical issues because it is assumed (rightly) that adults go to the doctor. I don’t need to know what kind of doctor it is.

      5. Sadsack*

        I initially found fault with how this was handled, but now I am just sympathetic. You have a difficult situation here. Good luck, I hope this is resolved soon.

      6. Jillociraptor*

        I mean, who would anticipate something like this? This is bonkers! It’s hard enough to navigate challenging conflicts when all parties are playing with their cards on the table, but your employee doesn’t even seem to be playing cards…

        Good luck OP! This is such a difficult situation.

        1. OP*

          yes, I feel like I’m over here playing cards and she’s over there playing “toss the hand grenade” or something.

  16. Guava*

    Can the hive not attack the OP…

    As usual, there is a lot of good advice ^

    Side note, has this employee (although upset with you/the company) not discussed her upcoming need for leave (appointments, chemo, whatever)? She would still have cancer if she actually had cancer…so if she just dropped the whole thing I’d find that incredibly odd. Good luck with this whole crummy situation.

      1. Guava*

        Oh yeah, I didn’t think she did (not that matters…) , but what I’m saying is if anyone reports to their superior that they have a serious illness and then dropped it/stopped talking about it, it would be little weird.

        This like a bad sitcom, where the boss asks an employee why she’s late and she blurts out it’s because she’s has cancer when in fact she doesn’t but it just came out and she looks at the camera with panicked eyes *cue laugh track*.

    1. Anon Moose*

      Someone said above that employee’s actual condition- a stomach infection- could cause both stomach ulcers and cancer. I think its possible she had a cancer test and dramatized it and then when HR looked into it she had found out she didn’t in fact have cancer. Or she overreacted to a doctor saying something about cancer. Idk, I don’t like how everyone is now saying the employee definitely lied when actually what OP did is STILL out of line and it kind of sounds like OP has it in for this employee…

      1. sunny-dee*

        Well, she lied about visiting an oncologist and she lied about being prescribed a very specific cancer drug.

        I don’t like how everyone is accusing the OP of being aggressive, attacking a poor innocent employee and accusing her of lying, having a lack of trust, and mishandling a medical condition (when the OP isn’t even the one who called the doctor).

        1. Anon7*

          I think (or at least I hope) that a lot of people aren’t reading the letter carefully enough to catch the details, like who called the doctor and how the conversation was handled, and running with it.

          I’m with you, I’m not fond of how many people are accusing the OP of mishandling this when all she did was pass the information up the chain, which is exactly what she should have done. I’m also not fond of how many people are pushing the HIPAA violation angle, when that has little impact on the OP’s question. I mean, it’s important to know your rights in regards to HIPAA, but whether or not the doctor’s office violated it has very little to do with what the OP should do now.

          1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

            All I could think about is that if one of my employees came to me saying they had a doctor’s note and cancer, I would have done *exactly* what the OP did.

            Not everything my employees tell me is in confidence (and I am upfront about that), there are things I am obligated to pass on to the proper people.

            1. Ife*

              I agree. I think the only thing the OP could have done differently (and maybe she actually did this) would be to say clearly, “Because of the nature of your work, I need to pass this information on to HR/[big boss].” Really, just more/clearer communication all around, and especially before contacting the doctor’s office, would have been good…

          2. casually commenting*

            It looks like this particular employee is a problem worker, but I think there’s more going on than what the OP has told us. Tell your supervisor? Sure. Tell the HR department? Absolutely. Inform the owner of the entire company? Err… if the OP’s boss and HR can’t be trusted to tell the owner, then this employee is the least of their problems.

        2. Anon Moose*

          I think I missed the part about OP not being the one who made the decision to call the doctor’s office. I apologize. I don’t want to jump on the OP. I retract that part of my comment.

      2. Anna*

        The OP has it in for an employee she has caught in lies before, to the point she’s had to write her up for it? The employee is a liar. It’s okay to say liar when a person is one.

  17. Lily*

    The thing is, H. pylori can lead to cancer if it’s not eradicated, so – is it possible that she or you confused “meds to stop major risk factor for cancer” with “meds against cancer”?

    1. Anon Moose*

      +1. And OP ran with the mention of cancer, contacted HR and her doctor’s office… and now the employee has updated information and knows she doesn’t have cancer. Or there was a test that she hadn’t gotten the results back from yet!

      1. sunny-dee*

        No, she passed the information on to an administrator, and that administrator contacted the doctor’s office. And then it came out that the employee lied about seeing an oncologist, lied about the drugs she was prescribed, and then lied about telling multiple people she had stomach cancer.

        I don’t know why you are so persistent in villainizing the OP? All s/he seemed to have done was be worried that the employee wasn’t taking enough precautions in an immunocompromised state and then someone else contacted the doctor to confirm the (lack of) restrictions, which was in the doctor’s note to do.

        1. Anon Moose*

          I guess due to experience I’m seeing a possible other side to this- an employee who had a cancer scare due to thing that causes cancer + family history of relative who died of same cancer, but then it did not end up being cancer- and think that could misunderstanding/ misinterpretation in the whole situation could also be a thing. And am reading the comments and everyone is now saying “oh the employee definitely lied, fire her, here’s all these examples of this one person who faked cancer.” I tend to think misunderstanding would be more likely than fraud, also because its unclear that the employee was trying to get anything else out of it other than the medical leave for which they already had a note.
          And I am really really really not OK with the reporting it to HR and calling the employee’s doctor for medical information.

          1. sunny-dee*

            Well, you can not be okay with it, but it has to be done. It would have to be done for ADA accommodation or FMLA, and confirming work restrictions with a doctor is also common. The best you can say is that someone not the OP blundered how they asked for medical information, but that is really small potatoes compared to the known issues with the employee.

            1. fposte*

              You don’t call the doctor for medical information in those cases either, though. The doctor *provides* medical information for FMLA; the employer’s right to contact the doctor is very closely restricted, and to ask for anything other than verification you have to get a HIPAA release from the employee. In ADA, you can talk to the doctor only if the documentation provided by the employee is insufficient, and the employee has to have time to fix the documentation first.

              1. Don't say my name!*

                Yep. I had to have the doctor provide info for the ADA accommodation I requested. HR gave me the paperwork and I took it to the doctor, who then filled it out and sent it back to the company (and sent me a copy). In no way did they call the doctor and ask. It went through me.

          2. Dot Warner*

            HR definitely shouldn’t have called the doctor, but handling dog/cat excrement is extremely dangerous for an immunocompromised person. Since that’s a part of the employee’s job, it makes accommodations necessary for the employee’s safety. So yes, HR screwed up, but the OP shouldn’t be castigated for trying to protect her employee.

        2. Lily*

          I’m not trying to “villainize” the OP, I’m trying to see a possibly not terrible interpretation for the employee’s behavior. Though that was before I read the second clarification of OP.

          I generally try to not attribute to bad intention what can be explained through stupidity, misunderstandings or people panicking about medical stuff.

          1. sunny-dee*

            I was actually directing the “villainize” comment to Anon Moose. Anon Moose seems to be really trying to defend the employee (which is totally their right) but at the expense of attacking the OP unfairly. The OP didn’t do anything wrong. (Aside from whether the HR admin or receptionist did anything wrong.) It just seems like they’re going out of their way to blame the OP for #reasons.

      2. Anon Moose*

        Also, OP said that the employee said there’s a family history of stomach cancer. So it seems possible that a reasonable person could connect those dots and end up (luckily) being wrong.

        1. Arbynka*

          She told OP she had a “cancer doctor” and was starting doxorubicin and radiation. There are no flipping dots to connect. She said she had cancer and was starting treatment.

          1. Anon Moose*

            Yeah, those statements were clearly incorrect. Between what the OP said, the administrator said the receptionist at the doctor’s office said (which she shouldn’t have said by law), the employee said, yeah there are definitely discrepancies and information missing.
            But employee being mistaken about their diagnosis, or assuming they’d have to go through all that because their relative did, and then being wrong is a different spin than she lied to get out of work (when she already had a note for the stomach infection so.. why?).
            Yeah, employee could also be a compulsive liar/ exaggerator/attempting to defraud people. But I think it would be crappy to fire employee if there’s a possibility they could have been mistaken about a medical thing and not lying for malicious purposes.

              1. OP*

                I will also add the initial info dump, given on the first day she was written out for, was totally unsolicited. she sat down and told me she needed to talk to me and poured out her story. then she left. when she returned to work I asked “how are you feeling” and got a spiel about nausea, anti nausea meds and changing the protocol from oral chemo to injections and eliminating radiation.

                I don’t feel like asking “how are you?” is such a terribly nosy question.

                1. A Non*

                  Phew. Yeah, you were not out of line there. And rambling on about lots of treatment details is rather different than just saying she was prescribed one particular medication. No way was that the result of confusion on her part.

            1. Government Worker*

              I can imagine someone getting freaked out by medical testing and family history and telling an employer that they had cancer. And I can even imagine someone thinking it was completely inevitable that they would have to take drug X and receive radiation because that’s what happened with a family member or based on Dr. Google, and not being clear about the tentative nature of the diagnosis when talking with an employer.

              What I cannot understand is someone in that situation doubling down on the lying by now claiming that she never said she had cancer. The normal reaction from the employee here would be to say something like “I’m so sorry to have worried you. I was undergoing testing for cancer and got all freaked out given what my family member went through, and I totally got ahead of myself in telling you about the treatment I thought I’d need. Fortunately the follow up tests showed it was just an easily treatable infection.” It would be a little embarrassing to admit, but most people would be sympathetic.

              The fact that this employee is just pretending that she never said she had cancer is a lie in itself, and makes me reluctant to give the employee the benefit of the doubt.

        2. Rusty Shackelford*

          No, it really doesn’t. I can see where an UNreasonable person would connect those dots. I cannot, however, see why anyone, reasonable or not, would then go to their employer and say they’d already seen a “cancer doctor.” If a truthful person had jumped to that conclusion, they’d say “my next step is seeing the cancer doctor and starting chemo/radiation.”

      3. Arbynka*

        ” she stated to me that she had stomach cancer, had met with her doctor and her “cancer doctor”, had a relative die of stomach cancer, was starting doxorubicin and radiation. “

  18. TotesMaGoats*

    So, since I’m in the middle of (but not the manager of or dealing with) two people who are actively sabotaging the work we are doing and programs they are running but have yet to be fired…FIRE HER NOW. You say she has a history of dishonesty and other things. Fire her. There is nothing quite as demoralizing is watching coworkers get away with bad behavior and then they don’t get fired while you work your butt off with no recognition. Long story short: FFS Fire her.

  19. I'm Not Phyllis*

    The receptionist – major violation (but that’s not yours to deal with). A friend of mine’s son was recently told that there was about a 95% chance that a mass they found is cancer, and in her mind it has already translated to “he has cancer” even though biopsy results haven’t come back yet.

    Although I’d love to give the employee the benefit of the doubt (because, cancer or no, she’s obviously going through something), she’s already proven that she can’t be trusted in a big way and that’s difficult to come back from. If HR won’t let you fire the employee, they’re putting you in a bad place. Any chance she’s already looking for something else?

  20. SenatorMeathooks*

    Be careful how you fire her, because now you have confidential patient information about her seeing a therapist.

    1. fposte*

      As long as you don’t fire her *for* that, you don’t have to be any more careful about her than anybody else. Lots of people see therapists, likely including other employees at the OP’s workplace. This isn’t a ticking bomb; it’s a reason to fire the way you should anyway, carefully and thoughtfully and humanely.

      1. OP*

        My plan for now is to wait for her to lie about something else- dogs not walked?, dogs not watered?, kennels not cleaned according to SOP?- and fire her for that.

          1. OP*

            Our HR referral says not to for this and my practice owner is of the philosophy that if we give her enough rope she’ll hang herself with it. I think I need to ask again. I’m going to get an ulcer working with her.

            1. Michele*

              Can’t there be some kind of documentation? A written warning? Something put in her employment file? You’ll be on pins and needles.

            2. ToxicNudibranch*

              I’m glad you’re going to ask again. Good luck.

              You do not need someone who doesn’t value honesty, especially taking care of other living creatures. Does your boss really want to wait until an animal’s health is compromised because this woman has a casual relationship with the truth?

              1. Friday Brain All Week Long*

                +1 here. These are animals, not TPS reports. Good luck OP; I hope your bosses let you cut her loose very soon.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I just paid $45 a day to board my beloved dog. I would hope the kennel wouldn’t just wait for an employee to not walk/water/clean a kennel because they were too risk averse to fire a known liar.

          1. Sadsack*

            Yeah, that’s really putting client’s pets at risk. I wouldn’t be happy knowing this was going on at my vet’s office or kennel.

      2. Anna*

        Absolutely this. It’s disheartening to hear so many people afraid of ADA. ADA is to protect people from being unfairly singled out, it’s not meant to be a scare tactic to employers.

  21. GreenTeaPot*

    A few years back, I worked with a company leader who had a secretary who claimed to have ever disease under the sun at various times. Most specifically, she cloned to have a rare and fatal form of cancer. Today she is a healthy 70 years of age, and her husband now has a rare form of cancer. Munchausen’s and/or Munchausen’s by Proxy?

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I know way too much about this because of a family member who had Munchausen-by-proxy. Sadly, the guy probably does have cancer. Hypochondria and Munchhausen’s are quite different – claiming to have cancer is not munchausen’s. But if she took steps to make herself sick while claiming to have cancer, that’s munchausen’s (I’m simplifying a lot). It usually doesn’t transfer to other people – meaning, if she was the one who was always “sick”, she probably wouldn’t start doing something to make her husband sick. They get off on being the patient themselves, or by being the sainted caregiver. But not both. And adult-to-adult munchausen by proxy is very rare – it happens, but it’s much more likely to be done to someone under 16.

  22. intheseshoes*

    Something like that happened at my office once, except that it went on for several months. It was horrible, both the thought that a colleague was dying from cancer, and later on the realisation that he’d been lying about it the whole time. But yeah, eventually it came out that the doctor’s notes were fake, and the whole thing unravelled from there.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Not at work, but in an online forum I frequent, we had a person who did the whole Munchausen by internet thing. It eventually fell apart when he was whinging about being lonely, and someone who lived near where he said he was hospitalized offered to visit. The person who made the offer was already suspicious, as were some of the rest of us because he slipped up on surgical recovery time for the injuries he claimed to have. The faker disappeared after that.

      1. Cafe au Lait*

        There was (probably still exists) a LiveJournal forum dedicated to investigating and exposing fakers. So fascinating shifting through the itty bitty bits and pieces that create someone’s lie.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          I remember that! It was ridiculously fascinating and I fell into the rabbit hole for hours reading about it.

        2. AlyInSebby*


          This article and the comments and related strings tied me up in the internet for 3 weeks.




          I read ALL of the LiveJournal and Fandomwank – if you get to the people who have the Lord of the Rings ‘cult’ there’s a treasure trove. This bizarre story that started in Oregon and went all over the country ended in a murder 75 miles from my house.

          I call this an internet rabbit hole and I promise it delivers.

          There’s another case I have had a hard time getting back to but it was similar to the LOTR cult but this was based on a video game Final

          I gave this same email to a friend who had surgery and was then laid up for 5 days. She said she even skipped pain meds. rather than stop reading. :)

      2. Bluephone*

        I’ve been part of a forum dedicated to fountain pens for years and every so often, there’s a health scare involving a longtime member: and they’re probably lying.

        More recently, on another forum, there’s a member who probably isn’t lying about everything that happens to them but it may be so distorted and biased that I basically distrust everything this person says now.

  23. HenryRollins*

    I occasionally lie about having cancer just to practice my acting chops.


  24. MsChanandlerBong*

    Thanks, OP’s employee, for doing something that makes employers even more distrustful of people who have actual medical problems.

  25. insert pun here*

    My main takeaway from this is that an astonishing number of you know someone who has faked having cancer.

    I mean, I’ve called in sick when what I really needed was a mental health/Netflix and pajamas day. But cancer! Jeez.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Right? Also, if you’re going to make up a cancer, make it one that’s doesn’t usually kill you. Like, stomach or pancreas – that’s very bad. I suppose if I had to make up a cancer I’d go with, like, toe cancer.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Anyone I have seen with stomach cancer had a fast progression. If this employee had to lie, why chose something that moves relatively fast?

  26. TDL*

    I manage a medical practice and while discussing an employee’s poor performance, was informed she was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer and was starting chemo the next Friday. She would need to take Friday afternoons off for the next several months. I could not figure out when she went to her doctor’s to get the usual testing done when diagnosing cancer as she had no recent time off and had no car so she never left for lunch. One of the doctors at my practice asked her a few questions and received very vague answers. She didn’t know what kind of cancer she had and said the only testing she had was blood work. The questions asked by the doctor were asked with concern and an offer to help if she needed anything. I ended up letting her go as her job performance was so poor. A few days after I let her go I received a text from her phone saying it was a priest and the employee just had a stomach tumor removed and asked that I mail her check. No one here believes she had cancer. I almost kept her on to see what type of document she provided to get out of work every Friday afternoon.

  27. CD*

    What she did was wrong and a betrayal of trust, but it would be compassionate to try to figure out why she lied before letting her go. She could be experiencing mental health issues, problems in her family, financial stress, etc. Is there anything she could say by way of explanation that could convince you that this is less than a firable offense?

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