Should you mention your cancer when applying for a job? The most important thing to know before answering this question for yourself is that you are not obligated to disclose your cancer history to a potential employer — on your application, in your cover letter or during an interview. Deciding whether or not to do so is a personal choice, because your health history is just that — personal. However, that doesn’t mean that making this decision is easy.
In order to determine what’s right for you, you’ll want to spend time thinking about a few key things — your specific situation, your needs, and the pros and cons of both sharing and not sharing the information. Then, ultimately, you’ll want think about which option feels the most appropriate and authentic to you.
Below we’ve listed various steps of the job-search process and some things to consider as you approach each one.
It’s not uncommon for certain job applications to include “optional” questions related to demographics (e.g., questions about race, age, gender). It is well within your rights to opt out of answering such questions. Another optional question that is sometimes included is: “Do you have a disability?” If you decide that you’d rather not answer the disability question — which, again, is entirely up to you — then it’s probably a good idea to forgo answering all optional questions. That way, a hiring manager is less likely to wonder why you chose to skip only the health-related question — less likely to wonder if you have something to hide.
A cover letter is similar to an “elevator pitch” in that it is a brief summary of your experience and qualifications, how they make you the best fit for the specific job you’re applying for, and why the company should hire you.
A few things to note regarding cover letters:
First, depending on the job, a hiring manager could receive hundreds of cover letters. As a result, it’s unlikely he/she will have the time to give your letter a careful, thoughtful read; at best, it’s more apt to get a quick scan.
Second, coupled with your resume, a cover letter is what will “get you in the door.” So in that sense, there really isn’t a need (or the space) to discuss your cancer diagnosis. The goal of these two documents is to land you interview, so you can learn more about the position and the company, and the hiring manager can learn more about you.
Third, a cover letter is a static document that an employer reads to determine if they should take the time to meet with you in person (or via phone or Skype). If you reference your cancer in that document, you won’t be there to help the employer understand the news of your diagnosis; nor will they be able to speak with you face to face, and get an accurate sense of your readiness and capacity to work.
If you have a significant gap on your resume that represents a block of time when you didn’t work —while you were undergoing treatment, let’s say — and you feel strongly about addressing it in your cover letter, consider writing something along the lines of: “After a period of family responsibilities, I returned to school to refresh and update my accounting skills. Given that accounting standards and regulations have changed substantially in the past five years, this training was timely and highly relevant.” That way, you pre-empt any questions the employer may have about the time that’s unaccounted for.
If you look different because of cancer, you may be worried that your physical appearance will become an issue during your interview. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state fair employment laws prohibit most employers from asking a job applicant about a disability before offering him/her the job. However, a potential employer is entitled to ask questions regarding whether you can perform the “essential functions” of the job and how you would perform those functions. For instance, let’s say you wear a patch over your eye; the interviewer can’t ask why you wear a patch, but he/she can ask about your ability to read words on a computer screen and view samples under a microscope — assuming those are considered essential functions of the position you’re applying for.
Of course, just because a prospective employer isn’t supposed to ask about your health doesn’t mean he/or she won’t; so it is always a good idea to think about how you might field such a question. Will you disclose? Will you tell the hiring manager it is illegal to ask you that? Will you acknowledge that you have had a health issue in the past? Whatever you decide, just make sure that you give some thought to this ahead of time, so that you feel in control and prepared for any questions that the interviewer may pose. And consider using a technique called The Swivel, which can be helpful in maintaining or regaining control of the conversation.
It’s also important to keep in mind that interviews are an opportunity for both the employer and the candidate to learn more about each other. In that regard, it is your chance to get a better understanding of the job and what would be expected of you, as well as of the organization and the culture.
The bottom line: If you’re starting a job-hunt post-cancer, think carefully about each stage of the process and whether or not it’s necessary, appropriate and/or helpful to disclose news of your cancer. Because if you do decide that you want to share this personal information, you’ll want to do so strategically.
Finally, remember that you can always share information later on — including after you’ve been hired and have started at your new job — again, if you think it’s necessary.