To Tell or Not to Tell?

To Tell or Not to Tell?

Should you disclose your pregnancy or need for accommodation during the job search process? If so, when and how?

Lawyers with disabilities or chronic illnesses, or who are pregnant confront similar issues during the job search process. You are not legally obligated to disclose pregnancy, illness, or disability before receiving an offer even if you will need accommodation on the job. If you will not need accommodation, you are not legally obligated to disclose at any point. Your condition may, however, impact your health insurance benefits.

The candidate’s primary concern is that early disclosure may lead to elimination from active consideration for the job, although such discrimination is illegal. Of course, some other, legal, reason may be proffered for your disqualification. On the other hand, with late disclosure, the prospective employer may feel deceived by your lack of candor. Each situation must be considered on its own merits.

Even if your condition is obvious to an interviewer, prior to making an offer it is illegal to ask questions that may elicit information about a possible disability, illness, or pregnancy. A prospective employer may ask, however, whether you are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodation. You must answer that question truthfully, but it is up to you to decide how much to reveal. Practice your brief, positive answer beforehand, remembering to emphasize your skills and fit for the position.

If your situation is visible, it probably is best to disclose before the initial interview. You do not want interviewers to be so surprised or uncomfortable that they rush to get it over with, or focus on your condition rather than your skills. The disclosure can be done in a cover letter, but that may make it too easy to dismiss you before your credentials are given serious consideration. Once the prospective employer has decided to interview you, express your interest and let them know your situation while you are making the arrangements. It will be more difficult to back out of the interview at that point, and you will have the opportunity to compete on your merits. If you are using a recruiter, you may have her handle the disclosure when scheduling the interview.

Head off interview awkwardness by preparing to present your disability briefly and positively, and perhaps with some humor. For example, “I want you to know that I will be bringing my seeing-eye dog with me. She has been inside many of the best law firms during the course of my career. She behaves better than some of the attorneys I’ve met!” Or, emphasize your ability to perform the job: “I don’t want to surprise you. I have been in a wheelchair for a number of years. This poses no problem for me as most workplaces are accessible and, once I raise the height of my desk with some wood blocks, I’m in business.” If you need some accommodation for the interview itself, let the prospective employer know exactly what you need and how to comply, such as suggesting a source for a sign-language interpreter. Present your situation with confidence and demonstrate your ability to be a problem-solver.

For less obvious disabilities, chronic illnesses, or pregnancy, or where you do not need accommodation for the interview but will need accommodation to do the job, you can choose not to disclose until an offer is made. But, once the selection process has gone that far, a prospective employer may feel that you have not been completely candid. Therefore, it may be wiser to disclose at some point during the interviewing process.

After you have discussed your skills and fit for the job, you may bring up your situation as outlined above. Give specific examples of how you have managed to do an excellent job in the past. You might even throw in a few anecdotes, such as participation in sporting events, which demonstrate that your condition has not restricted your ability to handle life’s challenges. Be prepared to discuss specific options for accommodation, their cost, sources for funding, and where to obtain any special equipment. The easier you make it for the prospective employer, the better your chances of being hired and performing successfully on the job.

Pregnant candidates face similar timing issues regarding disclosure. It is best not to put a prospective employer in an awkward position by withholding this information until after an offer is made. In an interview, be ready to discuss your plans for taking maternity leave, when you expect to return, whether you will desire less than full time status for any period of time, and how your practice will be managed during the pregnancy, leave, and any part-time period. Let the prospective employer know when the baby is due and assure them that you feel great (if that is true). If this is not your first child, you could mention how smoothly you handled your previous pregnancy and maternity leave. Remember to focus on your skills and enthusiasm for the job and the firm rather than on the baby. Emphasize that your pregnancy and maternity leave are but an interlude in what you hope will be a long and mutually profitable relationship.

The response to your disclosure of your disability, illness, or pregnancy and request for accommodation will reveal much about the prospective employer’s attitudes and culture, which is pertinent information when choosing the right work environment. You want to join a team where your ability to do the job is valued over any accommodation you might require.

Valerie Fontaine
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