This is a follow-up to my next-to-last post, “Taking time off from Work for Treatment: What to Tell People.”  In that post I advised a man named Steve how to go about disclosing to his business associates that he had prostate cancer and needed to take time off from work.  It just happens that the Wall Street Journal recently addressed a similar question in their career advice column.  I am reposting it here.  You will notice that the WSJ counselor gives very different advice from from what I gave Steve, but I think mine is better.  To put it undiplomatically, I think they mean well but they are out to lunch.  But you can decide for yourself. 

To make my point I am going to intersperse comments between the lines of text in italics.


Here is the Q & A from the WSJ:

How to Disclose a Recent Illness to Interviewers

Q: I spent the past year being treated for prostate cancer and am now cancer free with a 90% chance of long-term remission. When job interviewers ask why I haven’t worked this past year, how should I respond?

It is very unusual for someone to take off a year for prostate cancer treatment, especially if it’s localized.  Maybe something else is going on.

A: “Hiring managers need to find and hire the best person for the job. If you’re in remission with good long-term health prospects, smart interviewers won’t nix you as a candidate because of your former illness, says Jim Pappas, manager of corporate staffing for the Barnes Group Inc., an international aerospace and industrial components manufacturer in Bristol, Conn.

I think they are being a bit naive.  They shouldn’t nix you, but they just might.  In the best-case scenario your interviewer would be a cancer survivor who is sympathetic to your situation.  It’s up to you whether or not to talk about your illness, but you should know that under the law you are not obligated to and an interviewer is not permitted to question you about it.

“Managers should be looking to find the best person they can,” he says. “It should be treated as just a hiccup in your employment.”

Dear husband thought it was outrageous to refer to cancer as a “hiccup”. 

“Nowadays, most men survive prostate cancer if it’s detected in the early stage and nearly all of them live for at least five years more, according to the American Cancer Society. The median job tenure for U.S. males is five years, reports the Employee Benefit Research Institute. This means, statistically, that employers have little to worry about.

Wow! This really gets me ROFL (rolling on the floor, laughing).  Do they really think the interviewer is sitting around and reviewing statistical tables and nomograms for prostate cancer survival?? And they say the employer will be satisfied because they will *likely* have you around for five years (if you have early stage PC), the average tenure of an employee.  Get real.  If you are looking to hire someone for a job, you are thinking long-term.  Nobody wants an employee who will wither like a pumpkin after 5 years :-))  Also, unfortunately, some men’s prognosis may not be that good — they don’t know how much time they have.  But they need work, too.  All this is a bit silly!

“When talking about your cancer with interviewers, be sure your statement frames you as a winner who overcomes difficult challenges, says Ted Martin, chairman of Martin Partners L.L.C., an executive search firm in Chicago. Use words like succeed and conquer in your reply, says Mr. Martin, who says he would have “no trouble” recommending prostate-cancer survivors to employers.

“Spin your recovery as a positive, like Lance Armstrong did,” he says. “Tell interviewers that you’re among the fortunate people who beat cancer and weave the fact that you are a winner into the story of your career.”

I do think of you all as winners and so should you, so this is not a bad approach.  But I would weigh this against the option of not disclosing the illness altogether.

“If you are uncomfortable disclosing your illness, you could offer a general answer regarding your absence, such as taking time off to deal with personal issues. However, this statement could raise more questions than it answers, plus it’s often best to be honest with interviewers so you don’t give the perception that you’re hiding something. of

The last thing I would cite is “personal issues”.  This is like walking into a minefield. I discussed some preferable options in my previous post Better to say you were tending a sick relative, in my opinion, or even that you took some time off to have a midlife crisis or to enrich yourself in some way.  Took a world cruise, maybe (my dream).

A hiring manager who rejects you for health reasons clearly isn’t aware of prostate cancer survival rates and is likely someone you don’t want to work for anyway. In fact, when viewed statistically, hiring you may make more sense than employing someone who hasn’t been diagnosed and consequently may not remain as healthy as you.

This is nonsense.  Hiring managers don’t sit around studying prostate cancer survival tables.  And the idea that you are a better hire because the employer knows that *statistically* you should live for five more years makes you a better employee than another person who might pop off at any time is pretty lame.

Mr. Pappas says he’s interviewed about a half dozen people in recent years who have disclosed being treated for cancer. “It did not discourage me from hiring them because you want to get the best candidate,” he says.

He adds that large companies would not reject candidates who have survived cancer because of health-insurance cost issues. Rates would not increase because health insurers have calculated the rate of illnesses such as cancer among all employees when determining premiums, he says.

Under Title 1 of the American with Disabilities Act, your cancer can be considered a disability if you were unable to work during treatment and employers may not discriminate against you because of it. They also may not ask questions such as if you ever had cancer or follow up with specific questions if you tell them you were unemployed because of a medical condition. However, employers may ask if you are able to meet the requirements of an opening.

(I just came across some information about this. These lawsuits are rarely successful.)

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