May 26, 2004

Tips for Job Seeking When a Pregnancy, a Handicap, or Other Personal Needs Are Part of the Package


By Alicia Abell

As he interviewed candidates recently for a communications job at Mercy Housing, Rich Sider, the group's vice president of human resources, saw a top choice quickly emerge. There was only one sticking point: She was six months pregnant.

Because the candidate specifically discussed how much time she would want for maternity leave -- and made it clear she would return to the job -- the Denver charity, which develops and manages apartments for low-income residents, offered her the position, Mr. Sider says.

Unfortunately, not every nonprofit employer is so receptive to job candidates who are pregnant or ill, or face other circumstances that could affect their time on the job. "It's definitely true that injecting that information might hurt your chances," says Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, in Washington.

Many charities pride themselves on being more employee-friendly than corporate employers, but they are often constrained by tighter budgets and smaller staffs, recruiters say. As a result, when an employee is out of the office for a long time, that can be more of a hardship on other workers -- and makes hiring someone who is likely to take long absences more of a risk.

Should job seekers tell their potential employers if they are pregnant or suffer from a hidden disability or disease that could affect their performance? What if they have a sick loved one who requires them to be "on call" during the workday? Here is a guide to deciding if, when, and how to handle sticky subjects such as these during job interviews.

Baby Talk

Under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it is against the law to refuse to hire someone because she is pregnant. Employers are not specifically prohibited from asking job candidates if they are or plan to become pregnant, but "they'd be stupid to do that," says Deborah Weinstein, a labor and employment lawyer in Philadelphia. If the applicant doesn't get the job, Ms. Weinstein notes, it could appear that her pregnancy or plans for a family were the reason.

In addition, while it is not technically illegal to ask questions about pregnancy, it is illegal to ask them only of certain people: Because employers would probably be asking only women about pregnancy, doing so would constitute discrimination on the basis of sex, says Ms. Samuels.

But just because employers shouldn't ask applicants about their plans for a family doesn't mean they won't. And plenty of bosses won't hire a woman if they find out she is pregnant, says Robert Drago, a professor of labor studies and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. "The majority of women correctly perceive there's enough discrimination that they don't bring it up."

Even so, most career coaches and legal experts recommend that pregnant job seekers reveal their condition to potential employers -- but only after receiving a job offer. In most circumstances, it is unlawful for organizations to rescind the offer at that point, says Ms. Weinstein. (However, she adds, if an organization hires or plans to train a worker specifically to help during a busy season, a job offer may be legally rescinded.)

What if a job seeker's pregnancy is already apparent? In that case, employment experts say, it is best to acknowledge the pregnancy during the interview. "Mention right away that you are so excited this is a family-friendly place, that you like their policies, that you hope it won't be a problem," advises Ellen Bravo, director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, in Milwaukee.

Pregnant job seekers should emphasize their attachment to the organization rather than their need for maternity leave, says Mr. Drago. "What employers worry about is not the pregnancy but young mothers quitting," he says.

Ms. Bravo recommends saying something like: "I'm so excited to be working for XYZ organization, and I look forward to a long tenure here. I recently received some exciting news. I'm going to be having a baby. I wanted to tell you that upfront so that from the beginning I can be transparent, document my duties, figure out who will take them over while I'm gone, and work out the details of my return."

When sharing sensitive information with the employer, she advises, use the vocabulary that the organization itself uses regarding family-leave policies. "Do your homework ahead of time," she says. In the case of pregnancy or a sick relative, for example, "emphasize that this is an unusual situation, that it won't be happening every year, that you have a plan and share that plan. Hopefully, the employer will be impressed that you've thought this through."

That is the case at the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, in Buffalo, says Peter Fleischmann, the group's director. "I would respect the person for raising the issue and would be more inclined to be more flexible" in terms of adjusted work hours, he says.

Above all, don't lie, says Donna Mogan, a career coach in Chesapeake, Va. She says she once worked with a woman who told a potential employer she was pregnant but said her due date was much later than it actually was. After getting the job, she was able to work only about three months before delivering. "That left a bad taste in the employer's mouth," says Ms. Mogan.

"Once the deception had been laid bare, there was a marked shift in how [the employee] was treated," she says. "The usual warmth and lightness [in the office] changed to a coolness." The worker, Ms. Mogan notes, never returned from her maternity leave.

Disability and Illness

Unlike the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act specifically prohibits asking potential employees about the existence or severity of a disability. Not only are employers forbidden to ask about a disability before making a job offer, but there are tight restrictions on such queries once an offer is made, says Ms. Samuels. (Check the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Web site for more details.)

Although employers cannot ask about job applicants' medical conditions, they can ask a more general question -- and are likely to do so if an applicant has an obvious disability: "Can you perform the functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation?" Once an offer has been made, employers can ask more direct questions about a medical condition, and can send the prospective employee for a medical examination. As long as the employer can make what the law calls a "reasonable accommodation" to meet the employee's needs -- such as providing extra lighting for a worker who is visually impaired -- the job offer must stand.

The Americans With Disabilities Act only covers people with impairments that "substantially limit one or more major life activities." To substantially limit a major life activity, an impairment must be long-term. Diabetes and multiple sclerosis are covered under the act, for example; a broken limb is not.

Recruiters and other labor experts advise candidates against disclosing illness or disease to a potential employer unless it directly affects their ability to do the work. "So long as it doesn't interfere with your ability to perform the job at the point of hire, you don't have to tell them -- even if you anticipate that two years later it will be a problem," says Mr. Drago.

However, Ms. Bravo does suggest that employees share necessary information about their health -- such as the need for doctor appointments -- with their supervisors once they have settled into their jobs. Workers might inquire how the organization handles medical appointments, mention their need for such appointments, and offer to come in early or stay late to make up for lost time, says Ms. Bravo.

But dole out information only on a need-to-know basis, she says: "There's a lot of ignorance about illness, and people might think, 'Oh, God, she's going to die in six months; let's not give her anything important.' Or they could be patronizing and saccharine."

Job seekers who need frequent time off to care for an ailing child or parent should handle the situation somewhat differently, legal experts say. While the Americans With Disabilities Act states that employers cannot discriminate against people because of their association with an individual who has a disability (they cannot refuse to hire a person because his partner has AIDS, for example), it doesn't require any sort of hiring accommodation for those people.

In addition to providing time off for the care of an adopted child or newborn, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act does guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a seriously ill spouse, child, or parent. However, the benefit applies only to people who have worked for their employer for at least a year, and they must have worked 1,250 or more hours in the 12 months immediately preceding the leave. Furthermore, the act applies only to employers with 50 or more employees, so small charities aren't covered.

If job seekers are responsible for frequent care of a loved one, says Ms. Bravo, they should negotiate flexibility in the job immediately after receiving an offer. She says job candidates should figure out the time needed -- to use one vacation day per month, or to telecommute one day a week, for example -- and then make the case for how to get the job done.

But candidates who will miss a substantial amount of time on the job should seriously consider whether to apply for the position in the first place, says Eric McCullough, vice president of human resources at Children International, a Kansas City, Mo., organization that helps children from low-income families. "If you know you're going to miss 30 percent of the time," he says, "that's a problem."

Facing Discrimination

For job seekers, the good news is that "most people who work in the nonprofit world want to be good employers, to be generous to their employees to the extent that they can," says Ms. Weinstein, the Philadelphia labor lawyer. "They tend to be more willing to meet employees halfway."

This is especially true of organizations with a strong commitment to social issues, charity managers say. "We're in human services, so we're more amenable to family being important anyway," says Herman McCall, chief operations officer at Starr Commonwealth, an organization in Albion, Mich., that helps children and families in need.

In his 25 years at the charity, Mr. McCall has also learned that people with complicated personal circumstances often make good employees. "Quite frankly," he says, "in some situations a person who's taking care of an elderly parent knows what being responsible and carrying through is -- and those are excellent attributes."

But there's bad news as well, Ms. Weinstein says. At many cash-strapped charities that strive to accommodate employees' personal needs, she says, "the will is there but frequently the way is not."

Job applicants who believe that pregnancy or disability prevented them from being hired can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission can then obtain information on the other candidates for the position to see if the person hired was truly more qualified or if an inappropriate reason was the deciding factor. Unfortunately, hiring discrimination is usually very difficult to prove, legal experts say.

With pregnancy in particular, women should pay close attention to what they are asked during job interviews, says Ms. Samuels. If an organization asks questions that suggests it is taking illegal considerations into account -- such as "Do you have a boyfriend?," "How serious is the relationship?," or "Do you plan to have children? -- document the queries with names and dates, Ms. Samuels advises. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can then find out if the organization asks these questions evenhandedly of all candidates, and if it does, why.

In the meantime, say career coaches and legal experts, don't try to shut down employers or recruiters during job interviews by pointing out the illegality of their questions. Ms. Bravo suggests the following response to an intrusive query: "I realize that what you want to know is if I will be a committed employee, and I assure you I will. I look forward to a long tenure here."

In the end, she says, that is what employers want to know anyway: whether a job seeker will turn into a devoted employee who can get the job done.

Have you interviewed for a job while pregnant, disabled, or otherwise in need of accommodation by your future employer? How did you handle it? Share your story in the Job Market online forum?