HR people - please help me with a thorny resume question
August 2, 2007 11:01 AM   Subscribe

HR people - please help me with a thorny resume question. I've recently become part of a Speakers Bureau for a national not-for-profit organization. I am also looking for a job. I feel like the fact that I do some public speaking will look good on my resume, however the speaking I do is for National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Unfortunately, as much as I would like things to be different, there is still a huge stigma about any kind of mental illness, particularly in business. Since I haven't worked for two years (partially due to depression), I was told by one job counselor to list my volunteer work as a way to show I wasn't just sitting around doing nothing, but as soon as I told her the name of the group, she advised me not to put anything about the speaking on my resume because it will raise red flags. Even if I just say I speak for a "non-profit organization, I know as an interviewer my first question would be "so, which non-profit do you speak for?" even just as getting-to-know-you conversation.

I also do have gaps in my job history due to my own mental health history, but in the past I've been able to say I had "health issues" that are no longer relevant. Unfortunately, now, all of my really strong work history ended about 10 years ago, and since then I've temped and taken jobs that are way below what I was doing before, so it's something I would have to explain in an interview (if I even get that far). I feel like if I do come right out and say the group I speak for, they will put 2 and 2 together and realize that the gaps are due to my struggles with serious depression and figure that it is still an issue (even though I know they're not allowed to talk about it). I'm not married with kids, so I can't use the "I wanted more time with my family" line.

Are there any HR people here who could weigh in on this? What would you suggest? Should I just leave it off completely (I do have two other much more socially acceptable volunteer activities that I could list).

I would really appreciate any help or suggestions you could give me.
posted by la petite marie to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
[less outside]. Gaps in a resume are fairly common. People understand that life happens and is unavoidable. If the mental health issues are brought to a point during an interview, just spin it to the positive and make sure to point out the hard work you have endured to overcome hardship. You have a lot of courage -- employers love this.

A good friend of mine had mental health issues in past and just applied for a masters program. I reviewed her application letter, which clearly stated her past mental health issues and the amount of effort required to get past them.

She was accepted.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 11:18 AM on August 2, 2007

Could you not say (or imply) that you worked for the alliance, not because of your personal experiences, but because of people in your family having had to deal with these issues? You might even be able to play with words in a way that you're telling the truth while still implying the above.

(The above doesn't imply I think you should HAVE to cover it up. Some places would know not to hold the truth against you, but like you said, some places wouldn't.)
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 11:19 AM on August 2, 2007

Seems to me that "how should I deal with my mental health history?" comes up often here on AskMe, and each time I wonder the same thing: why the hell would you want to work for an organization that held your past against you?

I don't see the point in lying during job interviews. If a company won't hire you because you had health issues or whatever, it's not a healthy place to work. Legally and morally they aren't allowed to care, and workplaces that give you shit about your personal life are the places that you inevitably grow to hate.
posted by jacobian at 11:27 AM on August 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

Partly it depends on the sector in which you want to work. I know that within non-profits and government agencies that deal with health care and mental health care in particular, your experience with depression and NAMI would be a huge plus.

For example, when hiring for positions funded by the Mental Health Services Act here in California, we invite (*not* require) people to tell us about any experiences they or their families have had with the mental health care system. People with experiences like yours are deemed to have desirable qualifications.
posted by jasper411 at 11:34 AM on August 2, 2007

As you know, generally speaking directly asking about specific health issues is a big no no when interviewing, and some areas it is illegal. Employees can set reasonable minimal standards that need to be met and can ask if the interviewee can meet those standards, "are you able to lift 50 lbs?". I am not HR directly, but I do hire people, about 2 to 3 a year. You are also not allowed to ask about kids or family, so an interviewer would not know the difference if you said "had to take time to be with family" not that I'm advocating making false statements.
If you are concerned about it, and you want to put a bit of exposition something along the lines that you have been volunteering by providing mental health education via these lectures, and that is something you have dedicated a part of your life to because you feel strongly about it, would go a long way with the right person. If pressed why you feel this way you can say truthfully that it has affected family members (you are part of your family) in the past.
good luck
posted by edgeways at 11:36 AM on August 2, 2007

I don't think you really need to worry that someone will see that experience and assume you yourself have a mental illness.

Try to distance yourself from what you know about between the lines of your resume and see what a stranger will see. An interviewer may be curious why you picked that organization to volunteer with, but may likely assume the answer of "Organization has a good reputation and offered an excellent opportunity for me to develop Skill X, which I always wanted to learn" without assuming anything else. The interviewer herself may have a friend or relative who has mental health issues or may have herself been inspired to volunteer with a group (say, a battered women's group) based on someone else's experiences and assume that your interest in this group stems from that sort of third person experience. If you're relaxed, polished and, well, normal in the interview, it will probably never cross the interviewer's mind that you volunteer there because you struggle with depression.

I'm not an HR person, but I've filled my own periods of unemployment with volunteering at groups that work with and for marginalized populations and it's not had a demonstrable negative impact on my getting hired.

You can certainly emphasize the keeping professional skills in shape while you're unemployed and the developing new skills aspect of your volunteer work, rather than your personal connection, if pressed for a reason. You are doing it for those reasons, too, after all.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:39 AM on August 2, 2007

"normal" was a poor choice of word, but the stigma comes from people thinking normal people don't get depressed or that people with mental illnesses aren't normal. so if you just seem natural and counter to the stereotype, a person who believes that stereotype won't think you fit it and won't assume.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:42 AM on August 2, 2007

I definitely don't want to lie, but I actually do have a family member with a mental illness, so I guess I could maybe emphasize that.

Also, sorry that my initial question is in such teeny print and is so hard to read. I'm not sure why that happened.
posted by la petite marie at 12:56 PM on August 2, 2007

Think about this too, what if one of the HR people has seen you speak and you don't put it down. I know that HR work can drive you crazy.
posted by slavlin at 1:49 PM on August 2, 2007

I work in HR, and it's always been made fundamentally clear to us (particularly those in staffing that we are not to discriminate on the basis of race, disability . However, I also work for the Canadian Federal Government, which has a vested interest in not aquiring Human Rights complaints, so YMMV.
posted by aclevername at 2:51 PM on August 2, 2007

I also had the reaction of surprise, thinking that if I were evaluating your resume I would not assume any volunteer work with an org meant you had the experiences that org relates to. The key may be presenting it as volunteerism along with the other volunteer efforts you mention. Epecially since those other orgs are in other fields, I personally don't think it would ring ny bells at all.

Definitely don't leave it out. Public speaking experience is very attractive to any HR dept., in several categories of positions (internal leadership, external relating to the public, etc.) as well as in the broader sense that you can be assumed to be at least somewhat confident, collected, and used to presenting your ideas in a clear way.
posted by lorimer at 3:53 PM on August 2, 2007

You might start a blog posting your speaking notes and charting your own learning both through your experiences with mental illness AND your experience as a speaker, working to build awarenss with large groups of people. THere would much here relating to leadership, managment and self-mastery, all of which are prizes for any employee. Make it ALL visible and take pride in the uniqueness of your ourney and what it means for someone who would like to hire you.

And good luck!
posted by salishsea at 4:47 PM on August 2, 2007

Do some more volunteer work to pad it out a bit. "In the past year I have done extensive volunteer work, for organizations including the ASPCA, NAMI, Blue Cross, and the Salvation Army." (Or whatever other charities appeal to you.)

"Oh? What kind of work did you do, and how will this assist you in your work for us?"

"Currently in my work for NAMI, I'm doing presentations for families and friends of people with various mental illnesses. I've done about two dozen group presentations now. This has given me experience in explaining a difficult, sometimes emotionally confronting, topic to groups of people in a relatable and interesting manner. I have had to prepare my own PowerPoint presentations, keep updating these to cover the more common questions I get asked, provide handouts, and do followup work to put people in contact with mental health agencies in their areas."

"Very good, what else have you done in the course of your charity work that could be useful here?"

"For the ASPCA I have acted as counter staff on weekends, taking enquiries from the public looking for lost pets, or looking to adopt pets. For the Salvation Army, I assisted at a food handout function, helping distribute drinks and food to the homeless."

"If we employ you, will your charity work affect your availability?"

"Much of what I'm doing now is to keep my skills up, especially in terms of dealing with the public. I intend to keep up some of the night and weekend work."

"If we were to contact some of these charities, what would they say about you?"

"NAMI is the one I've done the most work for, and I expect they'll be happy to put in a good word for me. I've put J---'s number down on my resume. She trained me and she supervises my presentation work. She's available Monday to Thursday, office hours. If you'd like to contact one of the others, I can email you a list of names." (No HR person really wants to chase dozens of referees. One or two good reviews from credible people is fine.)

(Adjust to fit, of course.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:15 PM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

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