Are you nuts to disclose chronic illness before starting the job?

I can’t count how many times a reporter’s first question is,  “Should someone with a chronic illness disclose in the interview process?”   They  seem to think it’s the most pressing issue on a reader’s mind.  Maybe so. But focusing on this question alone confuses the issue.

Even for people with no limitations on their work lives, the interview process can feel as murky as reading tea leaves.  But you’ve probably read that  interviewing presents us with opportunity.  I think it’s true.  For the 15 years that I’ve worked with people living with chronic health conditions, I’ve seen how interviews are usually your best shot to gather the information you need to decide if this job is your best option.   

I’ve also learned that it’s possible to ask the questions you need without saying anything about your own situation.  I’ve worked with many people around these kinds of conversations and they’re often surprised by how much they can learn without discussing their health needs.   There are no guarantees that what you learn will be what actually happens once on the job  — but it’s a starting place. 

Some, however, believe that discussing their health situation is necessary — either because symptoms are visible or for other reasons.   And while it can cost you the job offer (though you’ll never know for sure) it can also give you the confidence you need that this job and organization is a good fit and you could thrive in it. 

If you’re one who believes that talking about your health related needs is necessary,  I’m sharing a slightly edited excerpt from my booklet, Are You Talking (part of the Career Thrive Series available on my website).  I’ve written about this more extensively in Keep Working Girlfriend: Women Work and AutoImmune Disease!)


Three questions to consider if you plan to talk about your health prior to starting a job:

  1. When is it in my best interest to disclose to a prospective employer? If  your health requires some kind of flexible scheduling and flex scheduling isn’t in the job description, disclosing before you’re on the job is one way to determine fit.  Doing it prior to starting the job, you get to set the timing and the message.  And you can frame it in a way that shows that you are talking about this now because you want what’s best for your team (showing you’re a team player.)
  1. What should I tell a prospective employer?
  • Be as public as you need to be (only say as much as is necessary) and as private as you want to be (maintain your boundaries)
  • Keep it simple. Don’t confuse people with jargon.  Give them as much information as they need to know regarding what your performance.  You might choose not to name the illness  because it can become a distraction (e.g.,  ‘I live with a medical condition’ ).  Put the focus on how it impacts your work (‘I have to take periodic breaks to walk during the day’) which people can understand rather than  what it is or how it feels to you.
  • Keep it clear. Know your facts.  Deliver only as much as is necessary  and in  in a way that minimizes confusion and maximizes comfort.
  • Keep it unemotional. No one wants a sob story.  A prospective employer wants assurance that this won’t become his or her problem.
  1. At what point in the interview process should I talk about this with a prospective employer ? It’s not the first thing people should know about you.  But it doesn’t have to be the very last.  Often it’s best to do it once you have a job offer and as part of the negotiating process.

As in all things around chronically difficult health, we learn through trial and error because there is no simple solution.  What have you found works for you?   Share your stories, please.


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