A co-worker has cancer. What will they do? What do you do? It is definitely an awkward moment for many people.

I was talking with a Sales Manager on the phone. One of his employees has cancer. As the employee shares his condition with his boss, he clearly states, “I don’t want there to be an elephant in the room with my co-workers. I don’t want them to talk about it behind my back. I want them to talk to me about it openly.”

Not everyone feels the same way.

Some people want to talk about it; others may want to avoid the conversation at work; opting for more privacy. They may fear their co-workers will see them differently. It is a personal choice, and the only way to honor their choice is for someone to ask them what they want or wait until they are ready to share their condition.

What Does the Employee Do?

The first decision is who should know? It is important to share your condition with your boss for a number of reasons. It is better to have the conversation at the onset, rather than when the boss begins to notice a pattern of absences or decline in work productivity.

The organization will be better prepared to understand why you are missing work because of appointments or ill effects of your treatment. Employee centric companies will voluntarily make accommodations for you.

Most employers are bound to protect your legal rights – for both you and your family members. Visit the U.S. Department of Labor Website for information on the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Initially, your boss may suggest you tell co-workers who are working on projects with you. Your absences may affect the time lines of projects. Letting them make contingency plans or push out due dates will show you are working together as a team.

Some of your co-workers may feel uncomfortable hearing all the details. When in doubt, ask them how much information they want you to share with them. If they are not sure, make it OK for them to tell you they have heard enough or figure out a secret code that lets them tell you they have absorbed all they can.

What if I am the Boss?

As the boss, your staff will be looking to you to provide guidance, sensitivity and concern. At the first hint of absentee patterns, you should be talking to your employee. While you should not force an employee to share their condition, having a conversation where you show concern may open the door for the employee to share their situation more readily.

If the employee is not ready to share information, you will likely treat the absenteeism as a controllable event and that the employee is being irresponsible. Often, this kind of behavior leads to disciplinary action.

If your gut tells you something is going on with the employee and they are reluctant to talk with you; ask them if they want to talk with the Human Resources Department – they may be better able to assist them on a confidential basis. Some companies have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in place to help employees with difficult situations by talking to trained professionals outside the organization.

Learn more What Supervisors Can Do from the American Cancer Association.

What if I am the Co-Worker?

There are a number of ways to acknowledge that someone has an illness. News like this travels quickly in organizations and sometimes the employee would rather let the grapevine inform their co-workers instead of talking to each one of them directly. If you hear about something this way, ask if the information is public knowledge – sometimes the grapevine can be more hurtful than helpful.

If you are close to them, they probably will share the information with you. However, if you learn about someone’s illness from the grapevine, don’t take it personally.

Initiating a conversation with someone based on grapevine information requires sensitivity and respect. Let them know you have heard they are experiencing some health issues (details are not necessary) and you are there to be supportive. Now is not the time to pry. Let them open up to you when they are ready to. They might never be…if so, just respect and accept their privacy.

If the illness is common knowledge and you do not know the person well, but are in the same work group, consider a hand written card or note to leave on their desk. Keep it simple, again offering words of concern, support and encouragement.

Avoid telling the person you know how they feel. They will never think you understand, because you are not them in that situation. If you have been through a similar situation, you can share your feelings about how you felt. The best thing to do is to listen and acknowledge their situation. Let them know you want them to get better. You can find more information on talking with someone who has cancer at Cancer.net.