How to Handle Medical Issues in an Interview

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‘JT & Dale Talk Jobs’ is the largest nationally syndicated career advice column in the country and can be found at JTandDale.com.

Dear J.T. & Dale: I was assaulted by a former neighbor. As a result, I suffered a stroke and have headaches that lead to seizures. I lost my job after suffering a seizure during a phone call. How do I handle this in an interview? — Cynthia

Dale: Before we get to future interviews, Cynthia, I was dismayed to hear that a seizure cost you your job. So let’s bring into the conversation a long-time friend of this column, employment law expert Scott Gordon of the Rodey Law Firm in Albuquerque, N.M., and ask him if there is something — perhaps the Americans with Disabilities Act — that would come into play.

SCOTT: Whether or not Cynthia has a “disability” would depend in part on whether her condition is short term or long term. If her headaches and seizures are expected to continue, then she may very well be protected by the ADA.

Dale: So if she’s going to recover, then it’s OK to fire her?

SCOTT: No, but it wouldn’t be a matter for the ADA, which does not cover short-term impairments. If you have the flu or a broken leg, you’ll recover; therefore, you are not disabled. However, there are limitations on an employer’s ability to terminate an employee who has a short-term impairment. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires the employer to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to an employee with a serious medical condition. There are, of course, exceptions.

J.T.: Let’s assume for now that Cynthia’s former employer complied or that she doesn’t want to fight the decision. While legal restrictions might keep a potential employer from asking about health or medical conditions, they won’t prevent questions about why she left her last job.

SCOTT: I would advise Cynthia to answer honestly but without specifics. She might say: “I was terminated for reasons related to a medical issue. I think the decision was wrong, but I’ve chosen not to challenge it.” A well-trained interviewer will know not to ask about the medical condition, but might ask her about not fighting the decision. She might then say: “I don’t have to always be right. Sometimes it’s better to preserve a relationship.” If I were hiring, Cynthia would move to the top of my list.

J.T.: She needs to do a bit more to get to the top of my list — you don’t want to leave an interviewer wondering whether you can do the job. Perhaps, Cynthia, you could explain how you handle the headaches and minimize the chance of seizures.

Dale: You end up hoping that someone will take an interest in helping you. That works, especially if you say something like: “I need someone to give me a chance to show how effective I can be. I’ll really come through for such a person.” Instead of interviewers feeling that they might be dragged into your life problems, your medical issue becomes a work advantage: greater effort and lasting gratitude.


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Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional development specialist and founder of CAREEREALISM.com. Dale Dauten’s latest book is “(Great) Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success” (John Wiley & Sons).

Please visit them at jtanddale.com, where you can send questions via e-mail, or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

© 2009 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for great dialogue on tough issue. I'm not convinced Cynthia needs to say that she was fired.Sometimes, it's enough to say it wasn't a good fit.Which is true! But if you do say you were fired, Dale & J.T's last comments were terrific. If a person has to talk about med condition, talk about how it affects you (rather than the diagnosis which will derail the conversation) and how you handle it. And J.T.'s suggestion that you can stress this will make you a terrific employee is spot on. It will!

  2. Thanks for great dialogue on tough issue. I'm not convinced Cynthia needs to say that she was fired.Sometimes, it's enough to say it wasn't a good fit.Which is true! But if you do say you were fired, Dale & J.T's last comments were terrific. If a person has to talk about med condition, talk about how it affects you (rather than the diagnosis which will derail the conversation) and how you handle it. And J.T.'s suggestion that you can stress this will make you a terrific employee is spot on. It will!

  3. Thanks for great dialogue on tough issue. I'm not convinced Cynthia needs to say that she was fired.Sometimes, it's enough to say it wasn't a good fit.Which is true! But if you do say you were fired, Dale & J.T's last comments were terrific. If a person has to talk about med condition, talk about how it affects you (rather than the diagnosis which will derail the conversation) and how you handle it. And J.T.'s suggestion that you can stress this will make you a terrific employee is spot on. It will!

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