Reader: I work at a nonprofit and am the only staff member who manages and trains our 1,000+ volunteers.
My ex-husband, “John,” was physically violent and unfaithful. At one point before our divorce, he asked me to meet with him and his therapist, “Bill,” and then asked Bill to disclose to me that I needed to get STD testing because John had had unprotected sex with multiple partners. Outside of this meeting, I never had contact with Bill.
Three years later, Bill has just begun volunteering at my place of work. I feel sickened at the thought of working with someone who reminds me so much of John and knows so many personal things about me. What, if anything, can I do? Should I disclose this situation to my boss?
Karla: Here’s the good news: Assuming Bill is a properly trained and officially licensed professional therapist, he is generally ethically and legally prohibited from revealing personal information about his patients — so he’s highly unlikely to bring up what he knows about you, given your connection to his (former?) patient. Even if he remembers you, he might not acknowledge that he ever met you, unless you bring it up first. I realize it’s probably small comfort, but knowing that your private information is still mostly yours as far as Bill is concerned could buy you some peace of mind while you consider your options.
One of those options could be to confide to your boss that you previously met Bill during a traumatic time in your life, and that while he was not the cause of that trauma, you may find it difficult to work directly with him. But that feels almost like punishing Bill for being an involuntary bit player; he may have been the messenger, but he was not the one who harmed you. And bringing personal concerns into your professional sphere carries risks for you, such as revealing personal information to your boss and potentially your colleagues that you’re not yet ready to share. Plus, if your boss orders you to push past it and train Bill anyway, then what?
Then again, if you have reason to believe that your abuser will try to seek access to you through Bill, you absolutely should let your boss and HR know, so you can discuss strategies and measures to help you stay safe at work.
Although you’re no longer in your abusive relationship, there’s always a chance you’ll encounter reminders of your abuser in your day-to-day life. That’s why, before you take any action — or no action at all — regarding Bill, I recommend first talking with a counselor to examine your reaction and concerns, distinguish between old fears and plausible threats, and develop a strategy you’re comfortable with for navigating your post-trauma reality. Whether you find it through an employee assistance program, your doctor, a domestic violence network (rainn.org, thehotline.org) or a therapist you’ve worked with before, qualified therapeutic support can help you rebuild a secure and happy personal and professional life.
Pro tip: A growing number of states and local governments require employers to provide job-protected leave and reasonable accommodations specifically for victims of domestic abuse. See workplacefairness.org/domestic-violence-workplace for a list.