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Ask The Experts: Should I Disclose My Invisible Illness Before I Get Hired?

When illness gets in the way of your work, is it better to push through, or be open about it?

Ask The Experts: Should I Disclose My Invisible Illness Before I Get Hired?
[Doctor: sfam_photo via Shutterstock]

There are a lot of things that you want to make sure your future employer knows about you during an interview: your work ethic, your collaborative decision-making style, but if you have a chronic illness that might affect your job, should you reveal that as well?

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Psychologist Art Markman tackles the intricacies of this week’s reader question.

Hello there,

I need some advice. I have what you might consider an invisible illness: Type 1 Diabetes. From just looking at me you wouldn’t know there’s anything wrong with me, and for the most part I’m able to go about my work without a problem. But there are times that it can interrupt my daily worklife.

For one thing, low blood sugar levels–hypoglycemia–can occur sometimes when there’s too much insulin in my system and not enough sugar. When I experience low blood sugar, I usually become confused, dizzy, shaky, weak, anxious, and sometimes even irritable and combative. My behavior doesn’t appear rational to outsiders, and if left untreated, I could eventually enter into a coma or die. Treating hypoglycemia usually involves consuming some sugar and all is well again, but this takes a little time.

In addition to this, being Type 1 Diabetic means far more doctor appointments than the everyday employee. This means having to possibly take more time off than is accepted.

I just had a job interview that went great, and I feel confident that a job offer is on its way. I’m wondering if I should I tell the company I am interviewing with about my hidden disability?

Even though I know discrimination is illegal, I’m worried that it could prevent me from getting a job offer. But I also want to be forthcoming about the extra allowances I may need on the job.

What should I do?

Thanks,
Conflicted


Dear Conflicted,

First off, I hope that you have continued success managing your disease.

I appreciate your desire to be clear with potential future employers about accommodations you might need as a result of your illness. That said, I think there is a good reason to wait a while longer before you disclose your illness.

Anti-discrimination laws exist, because there is a human tendency to discriminate in a number of ways. We often react negatively to people who are different from us and to things we don’t understand, often unconsciously. Chronic illnesses can have both of these characteristics for potential employers, even those well-trained in what the law protects.

We use the law to provide victims of discrimination that society thinks is unethical a tool to combat that discrimination. However, the presence of laws against particular kinds of discrimination does not eliminate that discrimination altogether. That is why they are still in place.

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In addition, in many stages of the hiring process, employers are focused on rejecting applications. After all, they probably got a large number of applications. When people are in a mindset of rejecting, they tend to focus more strongly on negative information (that will provide a reason to reject an application) than on positive information (that would argue strongly to hire a person). So, there is no reason to provide information that might get more weight than it deserves, just because the individuals evaluating applicants are in a mindset of rejection.

Instead, you should allow your work and your social skills to determine whether you get the job offer. If your recommenders are happy with your prior performance, that tells your next employer that (whatever your life circumstances) you have done an excellent job in the past. That is the information that is relevant for them to make a judgment about whether they should hire you.

After all, everyone has issues in their personal lives that may affect their work performance. Potential employees may have young children or kids with special needs. They may have aging parents who need extra care. They may be going through a divorce. They may be active in nonprofit groups that take up a lot of their time outside of work.

Potentially, any of these factors could influence job performance. What is important for a person making a hiring decision is only whether the applicant has been successful in the past and whether they are likely to continue being successful. There is no reason to provide the people making a hiring decision with information that you then need them to ignore when actually reaching a decision.

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Rather than raising your illness while you are being evaluated, you should bring this up after an offer has been made. You want to discuss potential accommodations that the company might make for you while you are negotiating the terms of your hire.

There are two reasons why you want to discuss it then.

First, the period between when someone makes you a job offer and when you accept it is the period in which you have the most leverage. They company has said that they want you, and so they are now doing what they can to make sure that they get the person they wanted for the job.

Second, you need to evaluate the work environment before you take the job. The discussions you have around your illness will give you a sense of the climate in the organization. Your illness is chronic, and so it is an ongoing part of your life. If the conversations you have with your potential new employer are supportive, that gives you important information about what it will be like to work there. Conversely, if this discussion is difficult to have with the company, you might want to think twice before taking the job.

Good luck!


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