I have a question regarding asking for disability accommodations when getting a new job.
I have a circadian-rhythm disorder that basically makes me a clinically diagnosed night owl and causes me great pain when getting up at what would be a normal time for most people. When I’m able to sleep on my own schedule, I sleep well and feel well rested upon waking. But when I shift my sleep schedule to get up earlier, my body’s desire to keep sleeping in the morning is so strong that I will turn off my alarm without actually waking up; press the snooze button for hours; walk to another room to try to wake up, only to lie down in there and fall back asleep; and be unable to interpret the numbers on the clock. If I do manage to force myself awake, I feel like I’m having a heart attack. It took me a long time to realize that this was a disorder and to get a diagnosis.
At my current job, I have a delayed start time, which improves my quality of life immensely, but I’m looking to leave this job for something more interesting and lucrative.
There’s only so much medical intervention that can be done. I’ve tried the most effective treatments (light therapy, melatonin), and they help keep my sleep regular and pull my wake time earlier by an hour or two, but I can’t push it past that. The only other thing to try would be taking prescription stimulants every morning, which I’ve heard a lot of negative things about from others with my disability. I am willing to try this route for the right job but would much prefer to have a delayed start time, and if that’s not feasible for a particular position, I would like something in writing that allows me some extra grace around showing up late more often than most people would.
Bringing this up wasn’t an issue with my current job because I had worked for them in temporary positions previously, before my diagnosis. They saw the difficulties I faced firsthand, and I was able to talk about it openly in the interview process.
In my search for a new job, I’ve been asking in the interview stage how much flexibility there is around work hours but not telling them that I would need formal accommodations or have a disability.
Is this something that I should talk about in the interview process, or should I wait until I have an offer — or even until after I start and then talk to HR about it? On the one hand, I’m worried that if I disclose it in the interview, I could get passed over because they don’t want to deal with my accommodation. On the other hand, people have told me that it could cause friction with my manager if I wait until I’m hired and then drop this on them. One person I know who is a manager told me that if someone waited until they were hired to disclose this, they would feel put off and like the employee didn’t trust them, and that could cause ill will. However, I see no reason I should trust a manager I don’t know yet to treat me fairly, and I’m more concerned with my ability to get a good job and be protected under the law than I am with my potential manager’s feelings.
What are your thoughts here? Should I disclose early and often? Should I bring it up before accepting an offer? Or should I set myself up for maximum legal protection by waiting until the paperwork is signed?
Wait until you have a job offer and then bring it up as part of your negotiations.
You shouldn’t bring it up earlier because you’re right that it risks biasing employers against you, even if only unconsciously. That would be illegal on their side — by law, employers aren’t permitted to factor disabilities into their hiring decisions as long as the applicant could do the job “with or without reasonable accommodation.” But as we know, illegal discrimination happens all the time and can be tough to prove.
Frankly, when I’m interviewing candidates, I’d much rather they not disclose disabilities until we’re at the offer stage. I don’t want to worry about it influencing me unconsciously, and if I end up rejecting that person for legitimate, job-related reasons, I don’t want them to wonder whether it was because they disclosed a disability. Since it’s not something employers can legally take into consideration, you’re doing them a favor by waiting until the offer stage so that you and they can avoid all those traps.
Not every manager will see it that way, of course. You’ll run into people like your friend who will feel you should have raised your need for accommodations earlier. But they’re wrong — the law makes it very clear that you don’t need to disclose sooner and that they couldn’t have taken it into account even if you did. And show me someone who would be affronted that a job candidate didn’t trust them, a stranger, not to have bias around disabilities and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t reckoned much with prejudice in general.
By waiting until they’ve already made an offer to mention the accommodations you need, you’re significantly lowering the possibility of hiring discrimination. Yanking the offer at that point would open them up to serious legal liability for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. (The ADA is the federal law that requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees and prospective employees. Of course, make sure that you’ll be covered by it; it kicks in only when employers have 15 or more employees, though some states have additional protections that cover smaller employers as well.)
Once you’re offered the job, express your interest and then say something like, “I’d like to discuss schedule options with you. I have a disability that, in the past, employers have accommodated with a delayed start time. As a medical accommodation, would it be possible to work a schedule of [fill in with details of your desired schedule]?” If they have concerns about how well that would work for this job, they can raise them at that point, and you can engage in what the law calls the “interactive process,” in which you both try to figure out if there’s an arrangement that will work for you without causing undue hardship to them.
Note, too, that the law is clear that “undue hardship” on the employer’s side would need to constitute more than “We don’t like it.” They would need to demonstrate a genuine burden, often financial, or that the accommodation would conflict with the essential duties of the role, like if the opening were for a breakfast cook and you wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon.
Assuming you can reach an agreement, at that point it’s smart to get the accommodation in writing so there’s no question about it later. That can be as simple as sending an email to your manager and HR rep summarizing what’s been agreed to. Make sure you use the words accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
All that said, there’s an argument to be made that it’s better to have this conversation during the interview process on the basis that if your would-be manager is going to hold your need for accommodations against you, you don’t want to work there anyway. If that’s ultimately where you land, that’s your prerogative. Personally, I’d contend that there’s a ton of bias out there and you’re not obligated to put yourself at risk of it … and since the law offers you protections, go ahead and take them!
Learn more about accommodations based on your role at the Job Accommodation Network. Charges of employment discrimination on the basis of disability may be filed at any U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission field office. To find the EEOC field office in your area, contact 800-669-4000 or go to eeoc.gov.
Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.