Federal disability law bars most employers from asking about an applicant's ailments, but job candidates should weigh the pluses and minuses
Mon, Jan. 26, 2004
Joann S. Lublin
The Wall Street Journal
Graphic artist Lisa Hall hid her stiff and swollen fingers during job interviews last spring with Kaestle Boos Associates, an architectural firm in New Britain, Conn.
The firm hired Hall without knowing that she has had scleroderma since 2000. The chronic connective-tissue disease typically kills patients within 10 years. If she had divulged her disorder before she joined, "the safer route would have been to hire someone else," says Laura Morris, her supervisor. But, she adds, "I'm glad I didn't."
To tell or not to tell is a complex question that job hunters with a chronic illness must confront. Thanks to improved treatments, many of the 125 million Americans with a chronic condition hold jobs or seek work. Federal disability law bars most employers from asking about an applicant's ailments. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a company may refuse to hire a prospect whose medical condition might be worsened by a particular job.
Individuals with a potentially debilitating though unobvious chronic illness often keep silent about their condition during their job search. "If you disclose beforehand, employers can find a million other reasons not to hire you," warns Darren Flomberg, a career coach and rehabilitation counselor for the Five O'Clock Club, a career-counseling network in New York.
FOCUSING ON ABILITIES
Hall agrees that favoritism toward healthy candidates "is a fact of life." So in applying to Kaestle Boos, the 34-year-old artist decided "to play off my ability, my experience and my background."
But covering up her disease deeply disturbed Hall. "I didn't want to lie," she explains. A week after she started work, the probationary staffer felt comfortable enough to tell Morris and other colleagues about her scleroderma.
After revealing her condition, Hall told her co-workers, "I want no special treatment. I may have a bad day once in a while." She promised to make up work missed due to her medical appointments.
Some bosses would feel betrayed by a new hire's deceptive behavior. Morris reacted differently. 'My concern was, 'Can she do the job?' " the marketing manager recalls. Her qualms soon dissipated. Hall demonstrated that she's very talented and thrives under pressure.
Chronic-illness coach Rosalind Joffe makes an equally convincing case for pre-employment disclosure. Joffe, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago, has divulged her disease in advance of landing spots as a teacher and a mediator. "More people should consider [disclosure] as an option because there are real upsides," the Newton, Mass., coach contends.
Joffe urges clients to bring up their chronic condition while negotiating an offer. Then, both sides "know what's on the table. You're more likely to walk into a situation that's more flexible," she says.
You don't have to provide many details about your symptoms, Joffe continues. 'Say, 'I have a chronic illness, and this is how it affects me.' "
Bring up your chronic illness during the recruitment process "if there's more than a 10 percent chance of there being a problem during your employment," concurs New York executive coach Dee Soder. Explain what you've done to reduce the chances of a flare-up, she suggests. Hiring managers appreciate "that you're taking the unpredictability out of it."
Heeding such advice, 22-year-old Amanda Daly revealed her mild multiple sclerosis after a Massachusetts museum offered her an historical interpreter's post last spring. The museum wanted the fresh college graduate to wear a wool costume and mainly work outside. She knew she might tire easily doing so on hot days. Officials agreed that she could work mostly indoors or take a different outdoor assignment that didn't require a costume.
The Boston-area resident, who had begun job hunting in January, spurned the offer because she disliked the prospect of an 80-mile round-trip commute. She later cited her illness in cover letters to employers that serve the disabled or promote their interest in diverse candidates. That gambit hasn't paid off yet.
The accomplished young singer is now debating whether she should disclose her disease during a second round of job interviews with a Boston music organization this month. "You don't want to be sneaky," she says. But "everybody has something that employers will find out with time. And I don't have a visible disability."
A New Jersey newspaper reporter informed management about her ulcerative colitis before she accepted her current spot in September 2002. Her upfront frankness paid off when she needed a weeklong hospital treatment last month for the chronic colon inflammation. Higher-ups "were all incredibly supportive, [with] no questions asked," remembers the 28-year-old journalist. "If employers feel like they've been duped, they have much less reason to be supportive about your missing work."
In the final analysis, chronically ill applicants must carefully weigh
the pluses and minuses of exposing their malady sooner rather than later.
As Joffe notes: "There's no right or wrong."
© Copyright 2004, The Wall Street Journal