How to handle job interviews while going through chemo/radiation for cancer?
August 31, 2012 1:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the middle of treatment for breast cancer (chemo and radiation) and am unsure how to handle sharing this information (if I should at all) during my job interviews. What is my legal obligation? What is my moral obligation? What makes the most sense for everyone involved?

I've been unemployed since January and was diagnosed with breast cancer in June. It was caught early, so my prognosis is very good, but I'm just finishing up chemo and still have 6+ weeks of radiation before I'm finished with this phase of treatment in early November. I expect hormone therapy will follow but I don't expect it will affect my ability to work.

I just spoke to a recruiter about a job that really interests me. There is an in-person interview scheduled for next week which will be one day after my final chemo session. I am bald so I will be wearing a wig to the interview...I don't know if people can tell it's a wig but I don't look particularly sick or gaunt, so it's possible that no one will know.

I guess my question is when do I mention it? I don't want to take myself out of the running for the job...I think I'm a really good match for the position. That said, many folks have told me that trying to work during radiation treatment (especially a new high-pressure job) is not very realistic. They've suggested requesting a start date for after radiation ends if the position is offered to me. If I start right away then I will have to take a long lunch or leave work early for the 6+ weeks I have to go in for my daily radiation.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's hired someone while they were still in treatment or from someone who's started a new job during this process.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
mention it after they hire you and you have signed your name to an agreement.
posted by royalsong at 1:29 PM on August 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

An important note here is that in general, the FMLA only obligates your employer to provide sick leave if they have more than 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of your office and you have worked there at least one year.

I think you have an ethical, but absolutely not a legal obligation, to tell your employer if you think that you will not be able to fulfill your job duties due to your illness. If you are a net cost to your employer, I feel that your employer should know about that. However, it sounds like it is more likely you will simply drop out a few hours every week, which is easily accommodated by working a bit more each day and/or working a bit on weekends. In other words, in your case, it sounds like your employer would not be affected by your illness.

I am personally of the opinion that an employer that is hesitant about hiring someone who is recovering from an illness and is able to do their job is not an employer you want to work for. In other words, if you find that your employer is reluctant about you taking a small amount of time out of your schedule to take care of yourself, they are not worth your time. A lot of people will mention the legal aspects of illness, but I tend to think of these things in terms of why you would want to work for an employer that requires you to use the force of law to maintain your employers.

In any event, good luck on your recovery route.
posted by saeculorum at 1:33 PM on August 31, 2012

I meant "maintain your employment" at the end of the third paragraph...
posted by saeculorum at 1:34 PM on August 31, 2012

It's possible to work; my dad worked all through his chemo and various other cancer treatments. But he's something of a workaholic and doesn't understand the concept of a 'holiday'.

Would you be anticipating taking time off? Do you have certain weeks that are already blocked off for treatment? You could say you have prior medical needs that need attending; I'm not sure how explicit you need to be.
posted by divabat at 1:42 PM on August 31, 2012

I would only share after an offer, acceptance, etc. Just because they are interviewing you now doesn't mean they will be speedy about hiring you. I went for an interview at the beginning of February and didn't start until mid May, and they gave me the impression they had 'rushed' things....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 1:51 PM on August 31, 2012

Mrs Segundus went through this kind of situation four years ago (breast cancer, small op, chemo, radio, fully recovered, variable job prospects). I'd say nothing, but answer any direct questions briefly and truthfully.
posted by Segundus at 2:01 PM on August 31, 2012

You have neither a legal nor a moral obligation to disclose your current health status during a job interview.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:14 PM on August 31, 2012 [14 favorites]

I would not disclose. By the time all of the hiring procedures are completed, and your start date rolls around (which you could push out a couple three weeks due to "family obligations" (you are part of your family)), you may be done or nearly done with your radiation. But ultimately it's your decision.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:15 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have no legal obligation to disclose. Even in the strictly moral sense, you'd be doing a disservice to your interviewer by doing so. HR companies drill it firmly into the heads of any employee who conducts interviews that there are certain topics that must be avoided at all costs (specifically topics like this one). When you bring up the subject, you make the situation very awkward for your interviewer since it forces them into a discussion of something that they could get into trouble for with their HR department.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:50 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Sorry, I meant "HR departments" in the comment above, not "HR companies")
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:51 PM on August 31, 2012

Every job interview where I mentioned my genetic disorder failed to lead to a job offer. The first one where I kept my big mouth shut about my medical situation led to a job. I mentioned it to HR during the intake process. There was a form for just that sort of thing. Later, I mentioned it "as necessary" to bosses et al.

I would say nothing in the interview, disclose as appropriate if you get the job.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:49 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your interview is next week, the employer will be very aware that you might not be able to start until November or so. If you were currently employed elsewhere you would have to give notice, and six weeks' notice is not unheard of. I don't think you have any obligation, moral or otherwise, to say anything about your health status, and if they offer you the job, at some point they will ask when you can start. That's when you say November. If they ask whether you can start earlier, you can either say no, or offer to work part time for the first few weeks, or something.
posted by lollusc at 6:02 PM on August 31, 2012

Do you feel like you have chemo brain?I worked on a film project with someone going through chemo, and while the whole team loved and respected that person, person's performance was greatly impaired, to the point of having to hire another staff member to do the actual job. You may not have the same side effects of chemo, but it's worth thinking about, esp If you plan to continue working there after your treatment is over.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:52 PM on August 31, 2012

Oh, wait, I know this one. I help people prepare for interviews. Let me share, in no particular order, what is usually covered in conversations about disclosing information during a job search. I'm actually supposed to write this up at work because I repeat it so, so often, so I guess this is a rough draft.

I expect this is going to be long - this is a brain dump, which is usually this is a 45 minute conversation with a client. :)

There are four key moments when you could potentially disclose information like this during a hiring process.

1. During the phone screen
2. During the in person interview
3. After the offer, but before you accept the offer
4. After you accept the offer.

There is a legal facet, an ethical facet, but also a personal one. And I think people get twisted in knots about all three.

My understanding is that legally, in the US, unless you need some sort of accommodation, you do not have to disclose until after you accept the offer. An accommodation might be something like you are pregnant, and for health reasons can't do stairs, and would like to request that the interview be held on the first floor of a building because they don't have elevators. But if you don't need these accommodations, you don't have to share your pregnancy until after they make you an offer (and really, when you do need accommodation). Same goes for any health issue.

The ethical issue, for some people, is actually a personal one. That is, people don't want to disclose information late in the hiring process because they are concerned that their future boss might be angry. That they will appear to have hid information when they were candidates, which they did, but the real problem is why they hid the information. Because they didn't want to risk that their boss would discriminate against them in the hiring process. Which also means in a way they are kind of tacitly calling their now-boss an unethical person who would have used the information to eliminate them from the application process. This can be an awkward way to start a relationship with a boss - even if their boss would have in fact, used the information against you. Which, let's be honest, some employers do. It's a catch 22. There's no way to tell if your boss would use the information to eliminate you unless you in fact tell, but the risk of it is exceptionally high.

So, I suggest candidates think about all this from a different perspective: You disclose when you as a candidate have two pieces of information.

1. You clearly understand what the day to day responsibilities of the job entails
2. You can be part of the solution in discussing how to make this issue work.

Based on these two criteria - you can't disclose during the phone interview, or the in person interview - you don't have enough information about the job. And because you don't have this first thing, you can't do the second - you can't disclose the information in the spirit of offering solutions about how to make this work. And this is really, really important. If I've just hired you, I'm hiring you because you are supposed to be solving some problem(s) I have. It really doesn't help if you present a potential problem as our first order of business, without coming to the table without some sort of possible solution. I think ethically, the issue isn't when you disclose - it's that you don't just make it your boss's problem. That you help your boss figure out how to make it work. In fact, if you forget this whole response, just remember this: Sharing in the responsibility of helping me as your boss figure out how to make it work is more important than telling me before I hire you.

So, the two times to disclose:

You could disclose after the offer, but before you accept, but it really helps to have conversations like this in person, and job offer negotiations are often on the phone. That said, negotiating for time off (for example, some unpaid leave, or a later start date, or a ramp up period, or taking vacation before you accrue is and then paying it off later, etc.) can be part of the deal to accept your offer, so some people do disclose at that time. If you do, try to have the conversation in person. Face to face it easier.

You could after disclose after you accept the offer.

But whether you disclose before you accept or after, you need to be able to say something like this... *note, it's late, so my jargon isn't stellar, but something like*:

Day one of the job:

Bob, hello. Do you have about 10 minutes to talk? I am getting settled in, have met the team and let me tell you, I am excited - I know that my skills and experience can contribute to the goals of the organization.

Before we move forward, I need to share some news. I am currently in treatment for cancer. The prognosis is good - it was caught early - but my physician has prescribed radiation treatment for the next six weeks. Based on the key milestones for this project discussed during the interview process, there are a couple of options about how to manage this in a way that minimizes the impact on the team. Can we schedule about 30 minutes to discuss options and come up with some solutions together?

And then you need to stop talking, and let Bob process what you've just said, and collect his thoughts. Give him a minute and see if he leads the conversation (perhaps he has experience with a situation like this from a previous hire). If he doesn't - set the agenda. Something like: As I see it, there are three topics here: 1. Discussing my health issue, 2. Discussing the priorities over the time frame when I am receiving treatment, and 3. How best to share this with the team. I have ideas on all three, and am happy to answer any questions. Where would you like to start?

In the end, you manage the relationship by handling the situation professionally, and letting Bob see that you intend to focus on transparency and problem solving, because you are acknowledging that you just brought a problem to the table. And make no mistake - anything that affects what your boss thought s/he was getting in hiring you is a problem. But it really isn't an insurmountable one.

One other thing. Someone upthread said that HR actually discourages interviewers discussing topics like this for legal reasons during the interview, and they are right. But sometimes an interviewer just notices that a candidate looks exceptionally sickly, or is eight months pregnant, etc. You might just get the feeling that the interviewer sees you have some sort of health issue going on. In situations like that, you can choose to disclose during an interview. The same language applies. Sometimes people disclose during the 'do you have any questions for us' portion of an interview. Something like....Actually, you've answered all of my questions about day to day responsibilities and current challenges already, thank you. However, there is something I wish to share. As you probably have noticed, my partner and I are expecting our first child next month. Throughout this interview, I've been listening for key milestones over the next 6 months to see how I could meet the expectations of the position if I am the selected candidate. Based on your timelines, I do have a couple of ideas, which I would be happy to discuss.....

So, for the too long, didn't read crowd: three things:

1. Yes, definitely apply! During the interview, listen carefully for upcoming key milestones/expectations over the next 6 weeks-3 months - your treatment and recovery period. After the interview go home and figure out if it really does work for you. Know that right now, you might not have an answer - some people I know are fine after radiation, others not so much. It may be the case that you negotiate something, have radiation, see how you feel, and need to renegotiate a start date two weeks later to fully recover. It happens. It's okay.

2. If you think it is a good fit, before you disclose, think about different ways that it could work (For example, I know some people who were just wiped out from radiation. So perhaps you can officially start after 8 weeks - for a two week recovery - but will come in/skype in to key meetings during that time, for example.) I'm sure a couple of people here will tell you how radiation affected them, and how they made it work at work. I do have a friend who did the work from home, but came in for key meetings thing during her treatment - she was wiped out the final two weeks of radiation and the two weeks afterwards.

3. Decide if you want to disclose after the offer but before you accept so you can negotiate, or if you want to disclose after you accept. Some people make this decision after they meet their future boss and get a bead on them, so don't feel you have to know now when you will disclose. When you do disclose, be brief, state that you are committed to, and have thought of possible options to make it work and would like to discuss them. Also then, be quiet and give you boss time to process what you've just shared. Know that it might take 1-3 conversations to strategize how to make it work for you. In the same way that you aren't exactly sure how to proceed here, so you're asking metafilter, your boss may know nothing about cancer, or their legal responsibility or how to make it work with a staff person they have just hired. So, they may not respond as skillfully as you'd like at first. So try to approach the conversation with transparency and compassion and as professionally as you can.

And lastly, be brave discussing this with your boss when the time comes. Your situation happens a lot more than you know (as I said, I'm supposed to write this up into a handout because I repeat it so often) it's just the first time it is happening to you. Other people have handled it professionally, and you can as well. But practice what you are going to say beforehand. With a friend, in a mirror, whenever. Write out a script if you have to, and practice from that. You'll feel much more confident if you've actually said the words beforehand - trust me on this. If your boss does freakishly (and illegally, probably) rescind the job offer, you can cross that bridge when the time comes. But don't imagine the worst case scenario. Just do your best, and let the rest take care of itself.

Best of luck in your treatment - I am glad they caught it early!
posted by anitanita at 11:48 PM on August 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Radiation affects everyone differently. It totally slays some people, and others are absolutely able to work all the way through. Since you don't know which will be the case before the fact, I would go with the suggestion to try to push out the start date. It may be no big deal at all to the employer. And you don't need to say why; "family issues" will suffice.

I'm one who doesn't think that it behooves people to be concerned with acting "ethically" towards companies. Companies are rarely concerned with employee welfare. Companies often take actions that are deleterious to employees, and seem to have no qualms about doing so, both as a matter of policy and in terms of a manager's decision in a given case. Therefore, I think a concern with ethics on the part of the employee toward a company is usually misplaced.

You may not want to create a bad reputation for yourself, or burn bridges, but these concerns are about self-interest. I'd say that you should do in this situation whatever seems like it would be best for you. You seem eager for the job, and I don't think you should shoot yourself in the foot by mentioning your condition early in the process. If mentioning this at all, I would absolutely NOT do it as a question, or asking for permission. Wait until after you have an offer, and then matter-of-fact explain what accomodations in terms of time off you will need. Assume that they will accommodate you and that this will just be a blip on the record of service you will provide to this company, and that your value to the company far exceeds this short-term inconvenience to them.
posted by parrot_person at 3:15 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't really think of it in terms of an ethical issue. I think of it in terms of contextual. If you were not interviewing for a job, if you were instead just meeting these people for the first time "socially", you wouldn't stick your hand out to shake theirs, smile big and say "Hi! I'm Janet. And I have breast cancer." That may be the single biggest thing going on currently in your life but it isn't all there is to you. Similarly, you wouldn't introduce yourself as "Hi! I'm Janet and I have just fallen madly in love with a man half my age. I think I want to have his baby." Either situation could impact your job performance but neither thing can be judged accurately without more context concerning what else you are bringing to the table.

At work, I usually told people "I have allergies and respiratory problems." or "I have dietary restrictions and blood sugar issues." or something similar. It gave them an understandable and honest explanation of why I ate funny or why my desk was so spartan but did not scream "I am dying!!!", which is the typical inference when I name my actual diagnosis. I am not dying. It does not sound like you are either. The detail that you temporarily need to spend a bit more time and effort on your health will be wildly distorted if you put your diagnosis out there as one of the first things they learn about you. It will make more sense in context, at a later date.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:00 AM on September 1, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
Dear Mefites,

Thanks so much for all of the great advice. Especially saeculorum, wolfdreams01 and anitanita but all of the responses gave me some ideas I hadn't considered.

I went to the interview with full wig and makeup and it seemed to go very well. They said that they had 2 more people to interview and they would be making their decision in 2 weeks...then they both laughed and said that they had no idea when HR would make "their" decision so that the 2 week thing wasn't solid. This makes me think that a mid-November start date is much more acceptable if I'm offered the job.

Also, I'm definitely more forgetful lately so it's possible I'm experiencing chemo brain. I sometimes forget if I've had conversations with people or what my husband asked me to do just 3 minutes ago. It's very annoying and I imagine would be a significant problem in a work environment. I'm hoping this issue will fade now that chemo is over and that the only side effect I'll get from radiation is fatigue.

I realize it might not be legally required, but I would feel obligated to disclose the radiation issue before accepting the position IF I was starting the job during treatment. Not just because I would need accommodation but also that I feel it very likely compromise my ability to do my job to some extent. By pushing the date out to two weeks past the end of radiation, I feel like I avoid the issue altogether....assuming that the effects of radiation don't last much past when it's over.

Anyway, thanks again for all of your advice and support.
posted by taz (staff) at 7:38 AM on September 12, 2012

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