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Job Interview, Chronic Illness and 3 Big Ideas

Posted Dec 01 2010 5:39pm
This month’s Career Collective Topic is:  Human Resources and their role in the job search and hiring. As always, my post targets the issues people living with chronic illness face.  But don’t be fooled!  These points apply to “healthy” people as well.   To see what my fellow bloggers have to say,  scroll down.

Returning to work from a disability leave (due to loss of vision and severe fatigue – Multiple Sclerosis),  my boss called me into his office to tell me, “Your husband can support you both.  Take my advice:  stay home, have children and raise a family.”

This was the Vice President of Human Resources of a “Fortune 100″  Company and the event took place 30 years ago.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) didn’t exist and chronic illness wasn’t discussed at work, unless as a reason to leave.

I know  that there some who continue to stick their foot in mouth and say such things.  But worse, is that I  continue to hear interview stories and hiring procedures that are needlessly harmed because of poor planning by the candidate. When your performance is challenged by waxing and waning unpredictable events (like pain or fatigue),  you have to be vigilant about what you write and say and to whom.

So consider these ideas when you’re interviewing for a job and illness is a factor in your performance:

  1. Your first contact is typically a screener whose job is to weed out. The screener is usually either a software program or an administrative person  unless it’s a small business with small staff).  This is typically online and it generally relies on your resume.  One common issue is that chronic illness can lead to employment gaps which can be a red flag for screeners. Therefore, craft your resume to fill in those gaps.  Use volunteer work, consulting or anything you can find  so you don’t get screened  out before you  get your ” foot in the door”.
  2. Often, you’ll  interview with the hiring mgr and the team’s HR member – but not always at the same time.   Note: They don’t always  have the same agenda in filling a position and that will rarely be clear to you. Typically, I suggest that you stick to the same “story”, the same information, with everyone so you don’t trip over yourself.  But there are exceptions.  One  HR director told me about a candidate she wanted to hire  because she thought it was a good fit and because the CEO had said he wanted more diversity.  The director had learned when she interviewed  this person that the candidate needed certain “accommodations”  due to illness.  The director knew the hiring manager didn’t know this and she knew that she had to tell him.  As the director had expected, the manager balked because he didn’t think the candidate was worth the potential hassle.  The candidate got the job.  In this case, it was good that the candidate explained her situation privately to the HR director so she could advocate for her.  But that’s not a given. Be careful what you say and to whom during the interview process.
  3. Employment gaps, underemployment or career changes are all items that generate questions from interviewers.  Once again, don’t assume that the member of the human resources team — or anyone who is interviewing you — will “understand”  what created the specifics.  Stay away from the drama. Focus on the positive, on what you bring to the job and where possible, use what is unusual in your employment history to demonstrate how it makes you such a strong candidate now.

By the way, not long after my boss made that comment to me, I quit that job for a better one.  I didn’t stay home, full time, to raise my family but I’ve carved out my own, uneven and often very wavy path.

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