Dear J.T. & Dale: I have recurring ovarian cancer. To look at me, you would not know I am sick. I’ve also been very fortunate not to have any noticeable effects from the chemo. I’ve only missed three workdays since March ‘07 due to the illness. I will shortly be unemployed and will be seeking a new position. How/when do I tell a prospective employer about my cancer? — Meredith
Dale: First, let’s talk about your legal obligations — there are none. Here’s how one of our favorite employment attorneys, Scott Gordon of the Rodey Law Firm in Albuquerque, N.M., put it: “This job applicant is under no obligation to disclose her medical condition to any potential employer. Indeed, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, her potential employers are forbidden from asking about it.” Understood. But, I wondered, what happens after she starts and needs time for medical appointments? Scott replied: “At that point, she’ll have to disclose her condition and the need for leave. The act requires that the employer and employee work together to arrive at an accommodation that meets the employee’s needs and doesn’t create an undue hardship on the employer.”
J.T.: And when we asked Scott to describe what would happen if a future employer should terminate Meredith for not disclosing her condition, he said, “If that happens, I know a lot of lawyers who would want to meet her.”
Dale: So, no legal issue. And we don’t see an ethical one, either. Which leaves just the business issue: Will you alienate an employer by failing to address the medical issues beforehand?
J.T.: Here’s how I’d handle it. Almost every employer asks something like “What are your strengths?” Or “Tell me about your greatest professional accomplishment.” This is your chance to be proud of the fact that you have taken on cancer, and done so without missing hardly any time at work.
Dale: Nicely put. But, Meredith, we need to be honest and admit that some people are going to be intimidated by your cancer, which means that you candor will reduce the odds of a job offer. On the other hand, it might just get you a better-quality person as a new boss.
J.T.: Candor certainly worked for a woman I interviewed recently. She shared with us her story of how she beat cancer. Her positive spirit was so inspiring that I thought, “Wow, if she can battle cancer with a smile, she’ll be able to handle anything we throw at her here.” We were delighted to offer her a job.