The interview process is always fraught with trying to present the best version of yourself in hopes of impressing your potential future employer while still staying true to yourself. That balancing act becomes a lot more complicated when you have a complicated history of mental illness that has negatively impacted your career path.
Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader navigate this delicate situation.
I sometimes have significant behavioral issues that manifest themselves when I am under increased stress. It is called schizo-affective disorder.
Although I have had trouble in finding and keeping a job, I don’t give up. I’m currently looking for a job, but the problem I’m facing mostly is having to atone for my past behavior in the workplace that was probably a result of my illness manifesting itself. During the interview the question of why I left my previous job will inevitably come up. If I tell the whole truth to the manager that I have a behavioral illness, I assume that he will choose another candidate.
Why choose a candidate with a glaring deficiency? He could easily avoid any sort of discrimination law by saying he chose a different candidate on other grounds than the illness. And besides, he may have an ingrained stigma to assume that my behavioral issues are a result of my character, not a medical issue.
If I dodge the question, they might see through me or find out by calling past employers. I feel like I’m in a catch-22: I’m damned if I’m open about it, and I’m damned if I try to hide it. Do you have any advice?
I am glad to hear that your symptoms are under control now and that you are actively looking for work.
You have hit on a difficult issue. On the one hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not allow employers to ask questions about physical and mental illness during the interview. So, you are not required to disclose your illness history.
Prospective employers can ask about your ability to do your job, though, and so questions that relate to problems you have had with jobs in the past may come up. And, as you point out, either questions about why your left previous jobs or calls to previous employers may reveal some of your past behavior.
I think you should consider bringing up your illness and treatment during the interview when discussions about past employment and your ability to handle stress in the workplace come up. Although this does open up the possibility that you will be passed over for some jobs by some employers, there are a few reasons why I recommend this option.
First, dealing with any serious illness involves good days and bad days. Whatever cognitive or drug treatments you are using to handle your disorder will work well some days and on other (hopefully rare) occasions they may not work so well. On those days, you want to know that you are working in a supportive environment. A workplace that is willing to hire you knowing your past history is one where you can feel secure that your bosses will be supportive.
Second, the ADA requires that you disclose your illness in order for your employer to give you any accommodations. You don’t have to disclose the illness at the interview or even during the hiring process in order to get accommodations. You just have to tell the company before there is a problem. The advantage of disclosing the illness before you are hired is that the company may have some flexibility to structure your job in a way that minimizes the kind of stress that has caused you problems in the past. It will be easier for them to do that if they know about your history.
Third, the ability to talk about your illness is part of becoming comfortable with the role of the illness in shaping who you are. That is important, because if you feel some of the old reactions to stress returning, it would be useful for you to be able to reach out both to your treatment professionals and to someone in the workplace as soon as possible to help prevent a small problem from becoming a big one.
Ultimately, disclosing your illness during the interview process may result in a few jobs going to other candidates. When dealing with mental illness, though, I think it is more important to be focused on what your life will be after you have the job than more narrowly on maximizing your chance of getting any particular job.
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