When it comes to creating equal opportunity, social democracy and technological progress have taken us far. As technology evolves and becomes more accessible, we find new ways to include the under-served, marginalized and disenfranchised in the workforce. Unfortunately, the hiring process introduces other barriers to equal opportunity that are much more difficult to cross — poor people skills and stubborn stigmas.
Accounting for the mental and physical health of job applicants is a challenge, but it’s not impossible to navigate. Here are a few things to know from both a legal and a humanistic point of view.
From the Applicant’s Perspective
One of the most important things a job applicant can know before sitting for an interview is that you are not required to divulge details about your mental illness to the recruiter. Additionally, employers are forbidden, everywhere in the U.S., from discriminating against or firing somebody because of mental illness.
For this reason, you should enter into the hiring process feeling confident that your basic rights are protected under federal law. But what else is there to know when it comes to navigating mental and physical health in the hiring process?
Remember that interviews are the applicant’s opportunity to ask questions too. You can come to some conclusions about the company’s culture and the general atmosphere of the place, too. Do the employees seem to “gel” with one another and collaborate well? Have the recruiters, managers and interviewers you’ve sat with so far projected an air of compassion and non-judgement?
It’s also possible to learn about the company’s attitude toward those with handicaps, diseases and disorders by asking some questions. It’s perfectly normal to ask about the company’s paid (or unpaid) sick leave, their policies regarding doctors’ notes and missing work and whether accommodations can be made for those with alternative scheduling requirements, such as those who need to administer medication or test themselves regularly. Only be as open as you need to be to learn what you need to.
From the Recruiter’s Perspective
We’ve touched on the applicant’s right not to be discriminated against, but there are some circumstances in which the applicant is likely, and expected, to be more forthcoming. Each one might touch on mental and physical illnesses alike:
- Employer representatives can ask for details about a condition if the applicant has requested “reasonable accommodations” to perform their work.
- Employers can ask for details about health conditions after making an offer but before the applicant accepts, provided each candidate is asked the same questions as a matter of course.
- After starting a new job, employee health conditions can come to light if they’re the result of a work-related injury or incident, or they may be inquired about if they appear to represent a safety risk to others.
Let’s move on from the legalese for a moment and remember that kindness and mutual respect, more than anything else, will help your next round of hiring go smoothly. There is, for example, no reason to enter into this or any other interaction with preconceived notions or pre-baked judgements — and certainly not open hostility. Reserve judgement in all things, and most especially in a person’s apparent “fitness for the job,” even when you believe they might have a mental or physical impediment they haven’t divulged.
We all expect a certain minimum level of decorum and discretion. Operate under the assumption that there’s a good reason the applicant hasn’t come forward with their condition, even if that reason is a regrettable one, like caginess from a bad past work experience. You’re here to appraise their hard and soft skills as they apply to the position being offered — not to pre-judge them for a condition that’s beyond their control and outside their choosing.
From the Employer’s Perspective
There’s a lot of good will up for grabs right now as employers look for ways to open their doors open wider for the differently abled or the previously disenfranchised. Veterans returning from foreign wars, with or without mental and physical health problems on the mend, make some of the most conscientious employees you’ll find anywhere. But one needn’t have served in a theater of war to earn our benefit of the doubt or our respect.
Mental illness can take root in any family. And nobody chooses to experience a severe physical health setback. Responding to situations like these with grace is one measure of an individual worthy of respect — and a company worth working for.