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The Vine: October 17, 2012

Submitted by on October 17, 2012 – 9:56 AM24 Comments

I've got a situation that's the combination of good and super-crappy and would appreciate your advice.

Basically, I've been in my job long enough (four years) and am finally applying for new things and getting interviews. (Well, so far "interview," singular, but that's after not many applications.) Anyway, that's the good part.

The super-crappy part is that my mother's recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. It seems like they caught it early, it should only be a minor operation, no chemotherapy, just radiotherapy — all those good positive outcome cakes. But still, it's cancer. It's the opposite of pizza — even when it's good, it's bad. And as my mum's a widow (my dad died years ago, when I was 14; I'm 31 now), she's by herself with this. By herself in that she lives alone, I mean. Obviously my sisters and I are going to make sure to go down and be with her after surgery and after radiotherapy sessions and so on. Which requires time off work, and is what brings me to my question.

Do I mention all this at interviews? I'm wary of coming across as "My mum has cancer, please give me a job out of sympathy," but equally, even the most understanding employer would probably balk at a new employee in the first couple of weeks asking for lots of time off. Even for something that's so obviously a legitimate reason for doing so, they'll think, "You should have mentioned this upfront." And then the horrible cynical reptile part of my brain doesn't want to worsen my chances by making them think, "Oh, he'll hardly be around at the start, we'll go for someone safer."

My current boss is being very understanding, which I really appreciate, but that in itself just isn't enough reason to stay. I'm really not happy there — the people are great, but the actual work and the money are not. My initial solution of "wait six months 'til this is over, and then apply for things" would not be good for me. I need to move on, but currently either mentioning my mum's cancer or not mentioning it seem like awful ideas that will backfire.

What do you think I should do? Should I just gauge it interview by interview?

Thanks for your help,

I Wish It Was Just A Pre-Booked Holiday That I Had To Mention

Dear Holiday,

I'm sorry about your mom's illness; fingers crossed for a full and speedy recovery.

Your letter reminds me a little bit of the one from a couple weeks back about whether the sender should by a larger bridesmaid's dress in anticipation of becoming pregnant before a wedding next year. Not the joyous occasion you're facing, of course, but in terms of not trying to guess, and then game, a schedule you have no control over, it strikes me as similar. It's great to try to prepare, and have the issue in the back of your mind, but in the end, you don't know if the interview will go anywhere, or whether/when a follow-up interview would happen, or how long it takes to bring new staff on board at the company, or if you even want to work there — what if you get a bad vibe from the meeting?

I would gauge it on a by-interview basis, but I would also just not mention it unless the interview is going extremely well and the interviewer asks you directly whether you have any conflicts with starting right away. I don't know your industry, but that doesn't seem like a question you'd face in an initial meeting — and if it is, I don't see why you can't just say that you have a pre-booked commitment, because you do. You don't have to lie or imply that it's a vacation, but if asked, you can say that you have a family matter you'll have to deal with, and leave it at that.

But try not to get too far ahead of yourself with it. It's tough — you'd like to have at least one aspect of this shitty situation that you can predict — and you'll probably obsess about it anyway, but I think you'll know when the time is right to bring it up, and I don't think you need to get into the particulars.

HR/hiring people can feel free to correct me, and if anyone else has found themselves in a similar situation, let us know your stories.

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24 Comments »

  • Kemmi says:

    Most interviews I've gone to, they will ask if you have any holidays booked. If they do ask that, I'd be inclined to mention, "No holidays, but I may have to take some time off to look after my mother when she's recovering from surgery."

  • Rachel says:

    My suggestion would be to interview without mentioning the situation (except if directly asked about time conflicts), but very carefully review office policies on leave time before accepting a job, and when you do accept a job, if you know specific times when you will need to take off work, try and negotiate that up front.

    In my office, everyone is hired on a temporary basis until they pass a 6 month review, which means no vacation or sick time for the first 6 months (except leave without pay). However, when I accepted the job, I negotiated a 1 week vacation over the holidays, and they let me borrow ahead on vacation time that I hadn't earned yet.

  • attica says:

    I think it's something you should mention if/when you are offered a position, but I don't think it's necessary to mention it beforehand. First, none of their beeswax. Second, like you suspect, mentioning it during the interview process could sour them on considering you.

    But an employer who's already decided you're their choice will tend to be more accommodating to avoid having to re-choose. (I speak from experience, both mine and my company's.) Plus, that's the time it becomes their beeswax.

    Holding off until after you've started is, I agree, definitely not the way to go. It's bad faith.

  • Karen says:

    The blog Ask a Manager (http://www.askamanager.org/) has some really good advice in this arena, though most often it's about vacation time. Which, I guess this technically is, though it's definitely not a vacation.

    Best wishes to you and your mom!

  • Leigh says:

    I agree with all of the above. I had a pre-booked vacation when I took a new job that did not allow vacations in the first six months too, and mentioning it at the time they actually offered me the job was the right way to go. It was a few years ago now, so i don't remember the specifics, but we were able to work out a way to make it happen that suited everyone's interests.

    I completely agree that mentioning it BEFORE an offer is counterproductive, because it does put out a seeking-special-favors vibe that you probably aren't looking to project. But bringing it up once they've decided they want you is unlikely to derail the process.

    Best of luck to both you and your family!

  • Jen S 2.0 says:

    Agree with previous posters — it's a discussion for when it's time to discuss your starting date, not one to sandwich between your strengths and your weaknesses. Yes, you SHOULD mention it before you sign on the dotted line, but you don't need to bring it up at the first interview. Say something like, "I have a family issue I need to deal with, and it would be much better for me if I could start a couple of weeks after that. Alternatively, I could start earlier, but I'd need to take a few personal days pretty early on. What works best for you?"

  • Sarah says:

    Ask A Manager would, in all likelihood, say that this is something you should not address unless/until they offer you a job. Then, you bring it up and can usually work it out. Leave it alone during interviews.

  • Amy says:

    I agree with everyone else about not mentioning it during an interview but mentioning it if/when they offer a position. Just a side note, I don't recall ever being asked during an interview OR upon being offered a position if I have any upcoming vacations/holidays. Is that normal? Most importantly, however, I will keep your mom in my prayers. Cancer sucks!

  • Alicia says:

    I have a somewhat similar issue – about a year ago my Planned Parenthood doctor noticed my thyroid was enlarged. After ages of various doctor visits, and signing up for state-based aid (I don't have insurance), they discovered two lumps. Since I want but don't yet have children, and bringing to term without a thyroid is tricky at best, I elected not to have it removed.

    This means I have to drive 5 hours (one way!) to a state hospital for checkups every 3 months, to ensure that the lumps continue not giving cancerous indicators, and aren't growing.

    When I first started looking for work, I mentioned it proactively in every interview – until I interviewed with a legal office, where the lawyer told me it's not necessary, and in fact is absolutely none of a potential employer's business unless and until they offer you a job.

    I'm still looking, too, but I've stopped mentioning it.

  • Nanc in Ashalnd says:

    As someone in the middle of hiring for our very small office (oh, my blood pressure!) I would say don't mention it until you have an offer. That's when you start negotiating salary, vacation, etc., so that's the time to throw it on the negotiation pile as something that needs to be worked out. If they really want you, they may be able to work out having you start part-time, work a flexible schedule or telecommute for part of the week after the initial training.

    Also, talk to your sisters and your mom about this. Everyone will be trying to figure stuff out and it could be that your sisters will be happy to do most of the sit by the bedside stuff if you'll deal with insurance paperwork, bill paying, and other stuff that can be done from a distance.

    And finally, you say your boss is being understanding. Have you spoken with Boss and asked about changing positions, especially to one with more money? Asking for more responsibility, especially if you're getting good reviews in your current position, might be a good way to recharge your work life where you are. Is there a skill you want or need to get the dream job that you can learn at your current job? Is there something the company or department wants to do but no one has the knowledge? Would you be willing to lead the learning curve and get the project going? It's a lot to think about with what's going on with your mom but it's not that much different from looking for an entirely new job.

    You know the Nation is pulling for your mom and for you, so keep us posted on everything.

  • Eeeek, I've already been mentioned above! In any case, Sarah is right and that's what I came here to say: Don't mention this in the interview. You want to wait until they've decided they want you — in other words, when they've made you an offer. At that point, you can negotiate this like anything else.

    (The exception to this would be if they do ask you point-blank in the interview about upcoming plans to be away, but that's actually a fairly uncommon question.)

  • jennieh says:

    I agree with everyone saying don't mention it until the offer stage. But I want to float the idea of possibly sticking with your current employer until you get an idea of how much time and energy your mum's situation is going to require from you. Don't discount the value of a known entity when other things are unpredictable.

    My own job is no picnic, but they're extremely flexible about doctors appointments and medical stuff and that's the main reason I've stayed with them these past few years. Depending on how bad things are, you may not want the pressure of starting a new job with more responsibility at the same time your mum's going through this.

    And I second the idea that a boss willing to be flexible about this time off is likely to be open to making changes to your duties and pay to keep you on.

  • RJ says:

    Although the OP has indicated that the current job is untenable for 6 more months, I'd just suggest including the thought of FMLA leave in that decision. Assuming that the OP is currently eligible for FMLA based on tenure, location, and size of employer, that protection is valuable and wouldn't become effective at a new employer for a year.

    Best wishes to you, your mom, and your family.

  • B says:

    Lots of good advice above.

    Regarding your mom and caring for her, obviously everyone is different, but my mom had stage 1 breast cancer, so surgery and then chemo. She did have my stepdad there, and I think my sister and I each came for one weekend to be with her, but she really didn't need anything. She somehow made it through the whole year-long ordeal without telling her own employer she was sick. (I continue to think this is CRAZY and don't know how she did it.) Anyway, just one anecdote, but I wanted to point out your mom may have an easier time than you think. Don't plan ahead too much.

  • RJ says:

    Oh perhaps, based on "mum" and "holiday", the OP isn't US-based and so FMLA isn't a consideration…

  • Sharon says:

    I agree with the above advice… no need to mention it till they've actually offered you the job. You'd be surprised at how flexible employers are when they've found the right person.

    I knew I was going to be laid off at my previous job, so I started interviewing very early, expecting the process to take a long time. To my surprise, a fantastic opportunity came up early in my search. When they offered me the job, I negotiated a start date that was a month in the future in order to collect a "retention" bonus from my old job. They were totally fine with that.

    Good luck with your mom.

  • Jane says:

    Coming from doing a lot of interviews for a large company, it's actually falls under something that we can't ask/don't want to know. It's illegal to discriminate on basis of family status, etc, so when someone mentions such things, we are told to navigate questions elsewhere. Wait until you've been given an offer.

  • Dorine says:

    I know this is off-topic, but Alicia — the challenges of carrying a child to term without a thyroid are completely surmountable. I did it a year and a half ago, and she is gorgeous and perfect. I haven't had a thyroid since the 4th grade; I just take an appropriate level of supplemental thyroxin. Yes, we had to adjust the levels while I was pregnant and keep very close eye on them, but really, even without a thyroid — we increased my dose once at about 9/10 weeks, revised it about 10 days later, and that was the same dose I was on until I had the kid at 37 weeks. Take care of yourself, regardless, but don't let concern over pregnancy without a thyroid deter you from taking care of those lumps. (Lack of insurance, on the other hand. . . .)

  • Jacq says:

    I've done a lot of interviewing back in the day, and I agree with everybody else: don't mention it in the interview – the time to bring this up is when you're offered the job. Essentially, when being interviewed the only things that you should mention are things that are relevant to whether or not you're the 'right' person for the job. In other words, you shouldn't mention stuff that isn't relevant (and nor should you be asked them – so, questions like 'are you planning to have kids' should never come up, because they are not relevant to your ability to actually do the job).

    Best of luck to you and your Mum! And one thing that you might consider is whether, given that you could find that supporting your mother isn't conducive to tackling a new challenge at work, it might be worth postponing your job hunt temporarily and letting things settle down a bit first. Dealing with family illness is very stressful, and so is changing jobs. I'm all in favour of making life easier, not harder, whenever possible, so – assuming that your current job isn't horrendous (and by the sounds of your manager, and the fact that you've been there for four years, I'm guessing it isn't), and that you won't be materially disadvantaged if you stay put for a few more months – I'd consider pressing pause of the job thing for a wee while.

  • Alicia says:

    @Dorine – It's not entirely the children thing (though that is a consideration). They're not coming up as cancerous in biopsies, and since my thyroid's still working perfectly, I see no reason to have it removed. But the insurance is a big deal – I know the hormone meds aren't terribly expensive, but I'd still like to avoid it if I can.

    As long as it continues working, and the lumps continue to return negative results on biopsies, my doctor agrees with my decision to postpone surgery unless they grow and begin impeding my ability to swallow, breathe, or talk.

  • Julie says:

    Sorry I'm a few days late to this, but my mom went through the same procedure and treatment about 7 years ago so I wanted to chime in and let you know that she's been fine ever since. "Cancer" sounds very scary, but when they catch it so early that they only need to do radiotherapy, the whole process isn't too bad, in the grand scheme of things.

    Which brings me to my suggestion: If/when it comes time to tell a new employer that you're going to need some time off, I wouldn't tell them that it's cancer. Cancer could make them think that it's going to be a long, drawn-out process with you taking more and more time off, etc. I would say that your mom is having surgery and that you're going to need these particular days/weeks (work it out with your sibs in advance so you can be specific) to help out with followup appointments and the like.

    And one more thing: Since your mom has been diagnosed, make sure you start getting mammograms each year and make sure your sisters do too!

  • Joel says:

    Hi all.

    I'm the original letter writer. I think it speaks of how much my head was in a mess at the time that 'Mention it when you get an offer' genuinely didn't occur to me. I was stuck in this awful bubble of 'I hate both those solutions!' and couldn't see the obvious one.

    I really appreciate all the advice. It's kind of wonderful how people you don't even know will take time to think things through for you, and keep you in their thoughts.

    Anyway, update time. Everything's gone pretty well, all things considered. My mum (kudos on spotting that I'm not in the States!) has had the surgery and just finished radiotherapy. She's still on oestrogen meds for a few years, but other than that, no more treatment – all done with. They moved really really quickly and went from diagnosis to surgery to radiotherapy in a matter of weeks.

    And I have a new job! The surgery and recovery was done by the time I started, so I didn't have to mention time off requirements. The HR people know she hasn't been well, but there's the usual 'no time off in probation' thing. It was kind of an informal hire – I got the interview through a friend – so the whole 'Do I tell them?' question didn't really come up at the time. But as things stand, it shouldn't be an issue.

    So, yeah. Things have moved on and got better pretty quickly. Even just writing the letter helped me, and seeing Sars' response (and everyone else's) has been wonderful. So thank you again.

  • Davey says:

    I recently went on a job interview with my head shaved (I gave up growing the hair) and the bandages on my neck and throat from having a tumors removed. I was very upfront about my condition and that I was in remission. I wouldn't worry about it at all. It's all part of life. They understood. I'm still in the running for the job. I guess they like my tenacity!

  • Julie says:

    Congrats on the new job, Joel, and I'm so glad to hear your mom is doing well!

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