Be the Boss Over Cancer

I spent 6 years working at a small company. Other than the owner, I was the only employee for the first 2.5 years. I created all the processes and forms that is the foundation on which this company does business today and I increased business by more than 500%. Last summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At this time, the company had grown to 4 employees.

The owner and the Operations/Finance Manager sat with me to discuss the situation. I was instructed to take all the time that I needed to get well and not to come back until I was 100%. The reason .... they would need to hire someone to perform my duties and did not want me to come back ..... have to let that person go ...... and then me have to leave again for more treatment and then they would need to hire someone else. So I was never led to believe that my job was at risk.

A few weeks ago the owner called and asked if I could come in to meet with him. I again met with them both. I was told that they were not permitting me to return ..... stating "business reasons" and " had to proceed as if I was not coming back".

My question is this .... when I go on interviews, I will be asked why I left my last job. I am not sure how to respond to this without letting them know what happened. I am also looking into my legal rights in this situation. I have spoken to several attorneys who will not take my case because the company is too small for it to be financially beneficial. I have an appointment with another attorney in a few weeks. If this should turn into a law suit situation, then I am not even sure how to handle not having potential new employers contact my previous employer.


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  • Alice McKenney

    Alice McKenney on Mar 9, 2012

    Cancer and Careers Staff Comment:

    Hi Shari,

    I have sent along your post to one of our coaches to assist you with how to speak about your previous job in an interview.  However, regarding the legal situation, I do want to let you know of an organization called the Cancer Legal Resource Center where you can speak with a lawyer to determine what your rights were/are in this situation.

    Cancer Legal Resource Center
    Toll Free #: (866) THE-CLRC or (866) 843-2572

    TDD: (213) 736-8310

    Fax: (213) 736-1428 (Los Angeles)

    Fax: (312) 278-0353 (Chicago)




  • Kathy Flora

    Kathy Flora on Mar 9, 2012

    Career Coach Comment:

    Shari,  It sounds like you have some tremendous experience to offer an employer, including the ability to conceptualize an idea, then turn it into a reality... and a profitable one at that.  Congratulations on that career achievement, and on your recovery from breast cancer.

    I know that the situation you face with your former employer is a difficult one to go through.   However, the more you can separate yourself from those emotions about how you were treated, and focus on your strengths in your job interview, the better. Your worry about explaining why you left your former job can be handled clearly and directly if asked, by stating something like this: "I took some time off to deal with a "family or health" issue and that that circumstance is no longer in play.   With that resolved, I am  now free to focus on bringing to an employer all the strengths and skills I have  to bear on making a difference in this next job." Don't get into the details or get drawn into a long, drawn out discussion of the why.  And, don't necessarily mention your cancer and treatment, as that is no one's business but your own.   What is their business is how you can have a positive impact on their bottom line... on their customer service etc. Make sense?

    It may be helpful for you to explore with your past employer a way for them to help you reestablish employment by offering you a very positive reference.   Perhaps the folks at the Cancer Legal Resource Center can assist you in crafting the language of that reference and an approach to the former boss to ask him to use that language if a new employer prospect calls for a reference.   It may have been business expediency that caused him to make the decision he did, or it could have been your illness and treatment... you may never know.  But, no matter what, it may be best for both parties if he assists you to move on with the dignity and support your deserve after making such a powerful impact on his business operation. That help may take the form of a great reference... or a reference letter that you can share with others.

    Just a few more points about the interview you are facing.

    1) Speak to the employer's needs and goals.  What do you have to offer that can make a difference to the operation?   Inquire about the prospective employer's biggest challenges and then share what you have done in the past when facing similar circumstances. Focus on real life examples where you have tackled similar problems or addressed similar issues and brought about a positive result.

    2) Focus on the future and not on negative thoughts, feelings or experiences with a past employer.  Even if there are still hard feelings, only speak about your past boss in positive terms if asked.  Be ready to articulate what made the relationship work for so long and how  you supported the growth of the business and worked in partnership to bring about the business results.

    3) Focus on your strengths and not on your illness and treatment.  You are not  your cancer nor are you less capable because you have been through this trial.  In fact, some feel even stronger and clearer about their career goals after experiencing such a challenge.  However, the interview is not the best place to talk about what you have been through.   Keep to the business at hand, and you are more likely to avoid unintented consequences if someone with whom you are speaking brings their own interpretation to discussion about cancer.  So, bottom line... leave cancer talk at home when you go to the interview.

    4) Own your achievements and be ready to recount them with facts, numbers, impact statements that showcase your capabilities.  Line up your examples ahead of time so that in the moment, you can draw upon those that best fit the circumstance being discussed.

    As you can see from my comments, I am most concerned that you work to position yourself as a skilled, capable women of substance who has had a powerful impact in her working life.   I can tell from your note that this is true about you.    So, Shari, own that!  Show that! and the rest will take care of itself.

    My best to you for  positive job search success!

    Kathy Flora, Career Coach

  • Shari S.

    Shari S. on Mar 9, 2012

    I thought you should know that one of the first things I did after I was told that I no longer had employment was to request a Seperation Letter and a Letter Of Recommendation (I received both). I appreciater all of your positive advice and realize the importance of being positive while speaking with an interviewer.

    If I should find an attorney to take my case .... how do I address that issue with my previous employer while interviewing?

  • Kathy Flora

    Kathy Flora on Mar 10, 2012

    Career Coach Comment:

    HI, Shari,   Sounds like you have done a great job of advocating for yourself already.   Wonderful!  You also ask a good question about disclosing the potential legal situation.    I can tell you are working hard to cover all contingencies.  

    My approach would be this. I have a simple rule about job search.    Treat the potential employer as you would a brand  new but very important and influential acquaintance.   With that in mind, one would not disclose personal matters that would impact the first impressions, unless they are directly related to the job itself, or the ability you have to do the work outlined in the job description, interview conversations or posting.

    I do recommend getting sound legal advice from the resources that Alice McKinney posted for you.  However, my initial take is that disclosing legal information that has no bearing on your ability to do the work would not be required or desirable.

    If your concern is that the former employer may disclose such circumstances in a reference check, then that is something to discuss with the attorneys so you can get some assurance from them about that potential circumstance. 

    I think that you will also find that if you do arrange for legal representation for your situation with the former employer, that attorney most likely would not want you contacting your former employer at all... but would take on that role for you.  Again, I am not an attorney, so please check with the Cancer Legal Resource Center for those details.

    Again, best wishes for a successful job search.


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