Interviews aren’t the place for personal disclosures.

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Q: I recently finished treatment for cancer and am in full remission. I’m now looking for a full-time job again and wondering whether it’s inadvisable to mention this experience in interviews. When I brought it up in a phone interview, the HR rep became defensive and lectured me about how my medical history would have no bearing on their decision, which completely missed the point. I understand their position from a legal perspective, but my disclosure was voluntary.

This disease had a huge impact on my life, and I’m thankful and proud to be on the other side. It’s now a fundamental part of who I am and has had a huge influence on how I’m approaching my professional life and the positions I’m applying for. How can I use this most appropriately while interviewing?

A: Let me reflect your words back to you, with some tweaks:

“Finding God has had a huge impact on my life.”

“Being a mother is now a fundamental part of who I am.”

“Coming out has had a huge influence on how I’m approaching my professional life.”

All of these are profound, life-changing experiences worth celebrating. But announcing them in a job interview? Yikes.

Most interviewers would really, truly prefer not to discuss your profoundly life-changing experience. It’s not that they wouldn’t be happy for you. But your disclosing, even voluntarily, your medical history or any information related to an identity that might be protected under federal, state or local anti-discrimination laws puts them in an awkward position. They may be worried that if you don’t get the position, you’ll assume it was because of that personal information you disclosed — and, in the case of some unscrupulous employers, that might in fact be the truth. At a minimum, they may reasonably wonder what demands your life-changing experience will place on you, and how that could affect your reliability and focus.

That’s not to say you can’t use your experience to inform your professional narrative. Maybe you have a newfound appreciation for building supportive networks, or taking the long perspective on short-term challenges. Focus on those outcomes — not on the ordeal that brought you to them.

Nor do you need to lie about what you’ve been through if it comes up — just keep the details vague and stay on message. If asked about gaps in your work history: “I took some time off to attend to a health matter. Now that my health has been restored, I am focusing on …”

And, of course, there may be rare occasions when your experience might be relevant to the job in question — say, if you’re interviewing with a cancer research and advocacy organization. Just bear in mind that sometimes an organization’s personnel practices don’t necessarily align with its ideals.

Pro tip: If you have a condition requiring periodic follow-up treatment or some other accommodation — flexible hours, preapproved leave — wait until you’ve received an offer, then ask for what you need. Make it a good-faith negotiable, not a “gotcha.”

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)