Advising Job Seekers with Mental Health Issues

First, a clarification.  I am neither a psychologist nor an attorney.  If any of these composite characters resonate seek the assistance of a qualified health care professional or attorney.  Second, you will find no political correctness here.  It’s not my role as a career counselor to make someone feel comfortable unless, as in the case of interviewing skills, that will help them get a job.  It’s my role to help them find employment.  If that means forcing them to face a reality they do not like, so be it.

During my career I have helped people with five different mental health issues.  For me, a mental health issue is when a person’s cognitive and/or behavioral abilities are not the norm.  This can manifest itself in their decision making process and/or their body language.   Let’s look at each in alphabetical order.

Autism

It is not difficult to sense when someone whom I am interviewing is hiding something.  What they are hiding is a different matter.  It is easy to tell when someone does not want to admit that they have been fired.  And, sadly, I have gotten pretty good at spotting people who claim to be veterans but are not.  (The mission of my company is to promote the hiring of veterans.  I do that by lowering my executive recruiting fee by a third when the client/employer hires a candidate who is a veteran, and by one half when a career counseling client is a veteran.)  But one day a woman came to me and, even though I knew she was hiding something, I did not have a clue what it was.

In cases like this I have a very simple method to discover what the issue is.  I use the word “issue” intentionally because while the individual may think they have a “problem,” the majority of time they do not.  It’s just an issue which can usually be dealt with quite easily.  So what is this “simple method?”  I ask them!

This woman had a good resume/career.  She was not a “jumper;” she kept her jobs for a reasonable period of time.  She had a Master’s degree from a respected university.  She was professional and articulate.  And she was hiding something.  When I asked her to confide in me she said, “I’m autistic but highly functional.”   I then asked, “So what’s the problem?  What can’t you do?”

She was amazed to discover that there was not a single thing she could not do, at least as related to the jobs for which she applied.  In fact, there were many things she could do better than most normal or regular people.

My guess was that she was obsessing over her autism and that made for uncomfortable interviews.  She was sending the wrong non-verbal cues.  My advice was to turn her autism into a positive.   When given the opportunity to tell interviewers about herself or how she overcomes difficulties, I told her to say, “I have had to do that all my life.  As a highly functional person with autism I have had to find ways to achieve goals. Here are some examples…”

All of the examples were work related and relevant.  With that change in her interviewing tactics, she found employment.

Dyslexia

I was working on finding a fundraiser for a school for special needs children.  I found a very good candidate who became the perfect candidate once he answered the question, “Do you have any experience with persons, especially children, with mental health issues?”

Other candidates had told me about their friends.  This gentleman told me about himself.  He said, “I’m dyslexic.”  He immediately went from being a strong candidate to a perfect candidate because he knew “special needs” first hand.

What was amazing was that in the past he never mentioned his disability.  He was afraid it would cost him a job.  He was wrong.

Dyslexic people, especially older ones who had to hide their disability in school because of the ignorance of society, have learned how to do, what I call, “workarounds,” meaning they have had to find innovative ways to do things.  What boss does not want to have on his team someone who is good at innovative thinking?  So I told him to talk about his dyslexia.  He did and he got the job.

Genius

Geniuses are a funny sort. They are highly intelligent but not necessarily when it comes to social skills.  It’s the famous “IQ vs EQ” debate.  Some have a need for everyone to know that they are the smartest person in the room.  That can turn people off very quickly.  Since employers only hire people they like, it is hard for some geniuses to find employment because they talk too much and come across as know-it-alls.  Appearing to be obnoxious is never a good idea in an interview!

One woman came to me who was, to say the least, brilliant.  The first thing I told her to do was to remove MENSA from her resume.  It took a while but I finally convinced her that a MENSA membership can be intimidating and it would be irrelevant for any job to which she was applying.

Then we worked on her interviewing skills.  She was a lecturer.  I don’t mean professionally, she was not a teacher, but every answer to every question I asked began with a lecture on the subject.  No one wants to be lectured to.  Simple answers to simple questions.  If you talk too much, you can talk yourself out of a job offer.

It comes down to prioritizing information distribution.  You don’t have to impart all of your knowledge on a subject.  You certainly don’t have to back up everything you say by citing countless books and articles.  What is required is to focus on what the interviewer wants to hear.  That’s easy to know if, and many geniuses have a problem with this (and some non-geniuses as well!), you listen.  You can’t listen if you are talking or thinking about talking.

In the case of one genius client, I worked with him on his listening skills.  The minute I would say something that I knew intrigued him, I could see the wheels start to turn, so to speak.  He was already thinking about his answer to what he presumed would be my question.  It never was.  For example, I started my question by talking about car manufacturing during World War II but I actually asked him about aircraft production.  He missed the actual question because he was excited to tell me about the contribution of the Jeep during the War, but when I stopped him in midsentence to point out that I had asked about aircraft production, he was shocked.  He never heard the question.  Once he learned to listen, he got a job.

Homosexuality

Homosexuals have a lot in common with geniuses.  Many talk too much as a defense mechanism.  They think they are at a disadvantage so they overcompensate.  It is an all too familiar nervous reaction to which most people fall victim.  Additionally, some place the same emphasis on the minor as they do on the major.  Allow me to explain:

A gentleman came to me who had some of the physical manifestations of homosexuality: a slight lisp, feminine mannerism including a tell-tale gait.  He was highly professional, very intelligent, and had had a great career.  Problem was, he lost his job when the organization he worked for went out of business.  He had not interviewed for a very long time and, like many other people in that situation, needed help.

He was a fundraiser.  I asked him to tell me about his fundraising successes.  He began by telling me about a parlor meeting he had organized that was attended by a dozen people and raised a few thousand dollars.  He then told me about a gala he had organized which was attended by 500 people and had brought in half a million dollars for the non-profit.  He told me that that was the answer he would give when asked in an interview about his successes.  And he never got a job offer.  Why?  Because he spoke the same amount of time about each success and, more importantly, with equal passion.  He gave them equal value even though they clearly were not of equal importance.

At one point in the interview he asked me if he should tell interviewers that he was homosexual.  (By the way, I don’t use the term “gay” because I think it is disrespectful.  Watch old movies.  Characters say “gay” all the time.  It means “happy” or “carefree.”  Describing a human being in that way is demeaning and disrespectful and I don’t do it.)  I asked him if he felt that homosexuality was a condition for which he required “reasonable accommodation” from an employer.  (When someone has a health or religious issue that is relevant for the job, employers are required by law to make “reasonable accommodation” for them.  For example, in the case of someone with a mental health issue it would be reasonable to allow the person an extra half hour once a week for lunch so that he could go to a therapy session.)  He said no.  Then I asked if his homosexuality was in any way related to the job for which he was applying.  Again, he said no.  So I told him not to bring it up.

He then admitted that he had in past interviews.  I told him that that was probably a mistake.  Interviewers would not know his motivation.  Was he telling them about his homosexuality because he was an honest person and wanted them to know something that he considered to be important about himself, or was he telling them as a non-articulated threat that, “If you don’t hire me I’m going to sue for discrimination!”  They would have no way of knowing so, to be safe, they would not hire him because he may be a law suit waiting to happen.

One client asked a very interesting question.  He said that he was well connected in the homosexual community and thought that would be important for an employer to know as he could expand the employer’s customer base.  On the face of it, that’s relevant and a positive.  The problem is, some employers do not want to expand their business.  They are happy the way things are.  So suggesting expansion, regardless of the “what” and the “who,” may be counterproductive.  I told him that once he had the job for which he was applying to wait until he had gained the respect of his boss and colleagues, and then ask about expansion.

A few months after he got the job he called to tell me that he gone to his direct supervisor to offer to introduce some sales people to potential customers in the homosexual community.  He told me that his supervisor immediately got up, they were in his office, closed the door and warned him never to talk about expansion or growth around the owner.  Apparently, the owner had had a partner who wanted to expand the business.  The result was an end to the partnership and near bankruptcy.  He then told him which sales person to approach and how to do it.

Post Traumatic Stress (Disorder)

First, an explanation.  “Disorder” is in parentheses because I have heard a number of veterans speak who have said that they find the term “disorder” to be disrespectful.  Thus my use of PTS instead of PTSD.

When a veteran interviews for a job, the 600 pound guerilla in the room is the question of their health.  Employers like people who are honest and who know the concern of the people with whom they are meeting.  My advice is always to be upfront.  In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it has always been appreciated by interviewers.

There are two possibilities.  In the first case the veteran can say, “I know you are concerned about health issues and I also know you can’t ask me anything more than whether or not there is any reason why I cannot fulfill the requirements of the job.  So let me answer the question.  I have no health issues.”  End of discussion.

In the second case the veteran says, “I know you can’t ask me so I am going to tell you because eventually it will come out.  I have…” (not “suffer from” just “have”) “PTSD.”   (I include the “D” because most people innocently don’t understand the “D” issue and know it at PTSD.)  “What this means is…  The reasonable accommodation I require is…”  And that’s all there is to it.

What usually happens is that there is a discussion about what PTS really is and how it manifests itself.  The veteran shows herself to be intelligent, articulate, caring and thoughtful, answering all questions.  At the beginning of the conversation she goes from being candidate to teacher.  I have never had a veteran denied a job offer because of a medical condition.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor.  He is the author of Success! As Employee or Entrepreneur and A Hooker’s Guide to Getting a Job: Parables from the Real World of Career Counseling and Executive Recruiting.

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