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Telling a Potential Employer About Your Health Issues

Suzanne Lucas, a blogger and former human resources manager, answers a question from a reader today on the management Web site BNet about the wisdom of telling a potential employer about health problems. Lucas’s short answer is “don’t do it,” at least not right away.

Lucas’s reader is applying for jobs that require a college transcript, and in this case, the transcript shows the reader got less than stellar grades in some classes. The reason: medical problems. Also in this case, the reader’s most recent grades were high and the mediocre grades received during the medical problems were in subjects unrelated to the work being applied for. A hiring manager, Lucas says, probably would not care about those mediocre grades, so the reader would be better off not mentioning them.

Lucas also addresses the broader question of leveling with a potential employer about chronic medical problems, noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in hiring because of disabilities, and that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. However, a study published in 2000 by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, reported that the hiring of people with disabilities actually decreased after the passage of ADA. Lucas says some observers attribute that decline partly to the cost of meeting those reasonable-accommodations requirements.

Lucas says applicants with chronic health issues should concentrate first on getting the job. Given the continuing tough job market, you don’t want to give a potential employer any reason not to hire you. Once on the job for a while, you can disclose the health problems to the human-resources department, who can advise your supervisors on any accommodations you may need. By that time, says Lucas, it will probably be too late for management to fret much about the hiring decision.

Science Careers devoted a June 2004 feature to health issues in the scientific workplace, including a Mind Matters column by Irene S. Levine on disclosure of health problems. Levine, like Lucas, notes that the issue is not always clear cut, but offers a series of steps people with chronic health problems can take, including consultations with the employer’s human resources department.