Dear Annie: If someone is acting out of character, don’t be so quick to judge

Dear Annie: Not quite 20 years ago, I worked for a local authority mental health agency with about 650 employees. I worked in the human resources department and knew all the employees by name because I literally had access to everything about them. I made out their paychecks, did all their insurance, and added and subtracted items as their lives evolved.

We had one employee who was not meeting our standards and was slacking off at every turn. He had worked for us for years, and his supervisor was at his wits’ end. He worked in the substance abuse department, and the HR director thought he was burnt out.

So the HR director moved him to the aging department, saying, “A change is as good as a rest.” The employee was happy with his new department, and we thought the problem was solved -- until the new supervisor started to have problems with him -- the same problems that the prior supervisor was having.

The young HR director requested “a fit to work” on this man.

I had known this man for years. Like all the employees, we had interaction often. He knew me.

The test came back that this 54-year-old man had advanced dementia. Before I could complete his long-term disability, I was making calls to his house that were so sad because of his confusion.

Since then, I plead with people to understand that if someone is acting out of character, then you need to think it might be a medical issue. People need to stop thinking that a nice guy somehow turned into a jerk overnight. My perfect wife somehow turned into a witch overnight. My lovely mother all of a sudden turned into an ornery old biddy overnight. Before you complain, get a divorce, or sever ties with your loved ones and friends, do everyone a huge favor and take them to the doctor.


Our young HR director could have just fired this man, but he was smart enough, and compassionate enough, to get a “fit to work” on this 54-year-old man, who then got his long-term disability.

Step back, breathe and think, “Is this person acting out of character?” What could I do to determine the cause? A trip to the doctor would answer a lot of questions.

-- An Old Lady in Salt Lake City

Dear Lady in Salt Lake City: Thank you for your letter. You bring up a wonderful point! Getting a “fit to work” appraisal is one of the most compassionate things you can do for someone. Knowledge is power. When we have all the facts, we can make a well-informed decision.

Annie Lane

Annie Lane offers common-sense solutions to everyday problems. She's firm, funny and sympathetic, echoing the style of her biggest inspiration, Ann Landers. She lives outside Manhattan with her husband, two kids and two dogs. When not writing, she devotes her time to play dates and Play-Doh. Write her: