It’s a nightmare scenario for all too many Americans.
You fall ill, say, with cancer. You undergo months or even years of debilitating treatments and finally emerge with a good prognosis. Or maybe a family member becomes catastrophically ill, and you take an extended leave from your career to be the caregiver.
Meanwhile, you exhaust your Family and Medical Leave Act benefit, quit your job and find yourself in a deep financial hole. Now that you’re able to work, you need to land a well-paying job pronto.
Your dilemma: How do you explain this employment gap to hiring managers, without compromising your privacy, exaggerating your return to health or leaving lingering doubts that could taint your candidacy?
“You’re walking a fine line of integrity,” says Shawn Desgrosellier, CEO of recruiting firm Vitality Group. “What do you say and not say? What can help you and what can hurt you?”
However you choose to deal with this difficult job-hunting circumstance, you must face it head-on. “It’s bad if you come in unprepared to talk about the medical issue,” says Cy Wakeman, an independent human resources consultant.
With that in mind, we share some experts’ opinions on what to say to employers and how to shift the emphasis to your qualifications for the job at hand.
What to Say About Your Medical Leave
First, keep it simple, advises Desgrosellier. “Say, ‘I had a medical issue and took care of it, and now I’m ready to get back to work,’” he says. “You need to think about the issue in advance and almost script it out for the interview.”
You can boost your appeal as a candidate by bringing forth relevant facts about your leave that aren’t too personal. “Do get detailed about details like the dates of your time off work,” Wakeman says. “But don’t get specific with the medical issue. Instead say, ‘I made the very difficult decision to leave my job; now I’m eager to get back to work.’”
You have the right to draw a line on revealing personal medical information that is not critical to the specific job you’re applying for. “The Americans with Disabilities Act certainly protects the prospective employee from having to divulge sensitive information,” says Michael Hoffman, director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College.
But be aware that prospective employers may weigh the bottom-line consequences of hiring someone who’s had a serious illness. It may be unethical or even illegal, but some employers, especially smaller ones, could consider how adding you to their health insurance rolls might drive up the group premium.
Which brings us to this hard truth: “Being forthright may backfire,” says Desgrosellier. So be honest, but try not to say more than you need to.
Be Bold About Highlighting Your Strengths
With skill and luck, you’ve been able to swiftly put the issue of your medical leave to rest with the prospective employer. Now it’s time to switch gears and promote your superior qualifications for the job. “Your candidacy has everything to do with your work history, whether you’ve worked for the right companies and had the right responsibilities and success,” Desgrosellier says.
Do beware of overpromising what you can deliver given your physical and mental condition. “The prospective employee does have a responsibility to respond truthfully when asked whether he can do the job and the tasks that go with it,” Hoffman says.
Answering Objections, Dispelling Doubts
Do you worry that your prospective employer still harbors concerns about your health? “Ask the employer, ‘What have I left you to wonder about?’” advises Wakeman. “Don’t defend against the employer’s concerns; acknowledge and respond to them.”
And accept this reassurance: Even leading candidates rarely come to a job opportunity entirely unencumbered. “Human resources isn’t looking for a risk-free bet; it’s looking to know and mitigate the risk,” Wakeman says.
Finally, be mindful of the employer’s point of view. “The employer is in a difficult position,” Hoffman says. “The company has responsibilities to stockholders, and is responsible for the safety of other employees and even customers.” These responsibilities may come into play if the employee falls ill again at work, for example.
Leave to Care for a Family Member
When your leave is for the sake of a sick relative, the job-hunting issue is perhaps less difficult.
In the case of a family member’s illness, be specific about your plan, Wakeman says. “[The employer will] want to know what you’ll do if you need to be out of work again [to provide care],” he says.
What if a family member has succumbed to a long illness? Wakeman advises: “If a relative passed away, it’s OK to say, ‘I did what I had to do, and now I’m clear. I didn’t want to cheat my employer.’”