How do You Explain Time Off Due to Illness Without Jeopardizing the Hiring Process?

I recently spoke with a woman who has spent the last two years of her life recovering from a brain tumor.  After successfully battling her illness, she’s doing great and is ready to get back to work.  All good.

But, this client, who I’ll call Sally, doesn’t know how to address her illness during the interview process. She is a private person and doesn’t really want to let the world know she had a brain tumor.

My response to her was that she has to tell the truth, without telling “all.”  I said something to the effect of, “Let the interviewer know that you were sick and have spent the past two years healing.  Follow up with a tremendous positive about how great you are feeling and how you are ready to get back into the swing of things. The interviewer is going to be wondering, ‘Hmmm, if I hire this person, is she going to need to take a lot of sick days? Is she going to be able to get her job done?’  To help counteract these assumptions, keep your explanation short and to the point and be uber-positive about how you feel today.”

I decided to throw this question out to other recruiters that I know and to an HR listserve.  What was fascinating is the silence I received from the listserve.  I have posted other questions and received tons of responses.  My guess is that people didn’t really know what to advise and therefore kept silent.  Of the responses that I did receive, most were pretty much in line with what I suggested.  Here are some examples:

I believe honesty is always the best policy, although one should limit the amount of personal detail they provide.  The idea is to
focus on the positive and assure a potential employer that one is fully able to return to work and perform at a high functioning level.  NEVER spend a lot of time discussing the setback — it’s all about positive forward movement.
Beth Reeves, Managing Director, Diversified Search Odgers Berndtson

I understand her hesitancy to disclose this but I believe in being upfront – she does not need to give the details but I would say, “I took time off due to an illness and now I’m able to return to the workforce without any complications (if that is the case).”  If an employer does not hire her due to her disclosure, it’s discrimination. Charlene B., Former HR Executive @ Major Accounting Firm

My concern as a recruiter / hiring manager is whether my hire will be dependable. Can I count on them to be focused enough to do the job. I don’t want someone who will call in sick all the time, be out for medical reasons, etc, so I would caution against giving any impression that the reasons were medical because this will inevitably work against her. But no need to lie either. …My suggestion: stay focused on the work. Say that it was a personal matter that is not an issue and leave it at that. She should pointedly ASK the interviewer questions that REFOCUS the interview back on her skills and capabilities to do the job. Anonymous HR Executive from Listserve

If she says what happened straight out, she’s going to show confidence.  Full-disclosure without the details is the way to go. She could add in that she has great support from her past employers regarding the work she performed and just be super positive about it.  She should also get a doctor’s notes…giving her a clean bill of health. – Scott Berkson, Managing Partner, Jobdot

There’s no science to approaching this kind of problem — just  speculation.  I hope, if you have been sick and are just returning to the market after a hiatus, some of the insights listed in this blog will help you to tackle the challenge ahead of you!  Carpe diem…

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