Thursday, 19 June 2008

‘Would you mind explaining for us the gaps in your CV?’

The dreaded, dreaded interview question... and one in which I have come unstuck in at least half a dozen job interviews in recent years. Basically, I believe that honesty is (generally) the best policy and I would (probably) never lie... but that still doesn’t mean I want to be entirely open. For the following reasons

1. Whenever I’ve disclosed in a job interview that the 4 years of gaps in my CV have been through not being able to work or study because of having been a bit mental, I’ve been turned down for the job in question... every single time*. When I’ve not been asked, I’ve been offered around 40% of the jobs for which I’ve been interviewed.
2. I don’t want to use, adhere to, align myself with or define myself by the conventional, medicalised constructs, categories or diagnoses of mental health or illness**. And to talk about being unwell or in distress still sound all twee and drippy. So I don’t really have a clear frame of reference from which to talk.
3. It’s generally not something I’m hugely comfortable talking about, even to friendly and open-minded people***.
So, given that I don’t want to lie, don’t want to disclose and don’t want to fail every interview I attend... where does one go from here?

Applying to work for a Christian organisation provides several options. As follows

1. ‘Praise the Lord, I’ve been healed! Hallelujah!’ If the interview panel responds with a resounding and collective ‘A-Men! Praise the Lord’, you know you’ve got away with it, hallelujah. This relies, though, on the interview panel all holding to a dogmatic theology of a God who heals instantly, with a healing never to be questioned. And on them not hearing the tone of irony in your voice.
2. ‘I’m being healed through the grace of Christ.’ This may satisfy an interview panel with a more nuanced, integrated eschatology and may make you come across as all deep and spiritual. However, they may be aware that, theologically speaking, it’s a fairly meaningless statement. For the world into which Jesus was born, the concepts of salvation and healing were linguistically and conceptually indistinguishable from one another. Therefore, as we’re on a journey of salvation, we’re being gradually healed, because we’re all of us in need of both. So ultimately, to say ‘I’m being healed through the grace of Christ’ is simply to say ‘I’m a Christian’. And they’ll know that.

But it’s not a Christian organisation for which I’m about to be interviewed. This is, then, relatively new territory for me.

The Organisation For Which I’m About To Be Interviewed (OFWIATBI) is big enough to have its own confidential employee helpline. And so I rang them, putting 141 in front of the number to anonymise the call and declining to provide the helpline advisor with my name, prospective job title or geographical location. She reassured me that the helpdesk receive ‘several calls each year’ from people applying for their jobs worrying about how or whether to disclose ‘a history of mental health issues’ (her words not mine) to explain a ‘lack of past employment’ (again, her words). Her advice was, ‘Just tell them that you were ill. And go online and have a read of our Equal Opportunities Statement.’

I thanked her, and rang the Careers Service at my old university. They asked me to email them my CV so that they could see for themselves the glaring holes. The advisor rang back to say ‘look Grace, you’ve probably got to be upfront, or else they’ll assume you’ve been in prison and aren’t telling them, especially as it’s a post they can’t CRB check you for. I accept your point that you believe your chances for this job might be better if you had been in prison than in hospital... but, now how to put this, wouldn’t you rather be regarded as mad than bad, really Grace...?’

Next, I rang the JobcentrePlus. After telling me that they could not handle my enquiry without my National Insurance number and not-quite-listening to my questions, the patronising arsehole of an advisor butted in with ‘but honestly, could you even cope with the job? But you know dear, you’ve got a lovely voice, and you know they new call centre they’re setting up behind Asda, maybe that’d be more realistic....’ I thanked her, made my excuses and hung up.

Finally, I rang the EHRC****. As much as I don’t do labelling or diagnosis, their helpline advisor was utterly textbook ADHD. Our conversation went something as follows

HIM: Well, given that you spent so long off work, you could probably claim DLA on the grounds of the stigma you must be suffering will severely disadvantage you in any future workplace*****.
ME: OK, but in terms of my question. In terms of the interview...
HIM: Yes, but you’ll need to be thinking now about what Reasonable Adjustments you might need to carry out the job.
ME: But the only adjustment I’m seeking is to be treated fairly at the interview. The job itself, I’m not asking for anything else for.
HIM: Yes, but suppose you had diabetes...
ME: Er, sorry?
HIM: Yeah, like, suppose you had diabetes and needed breaks throughout the working day to inject yourself and you’re colleagues were objecting.
ME: But I don’t have diabetes.
HIM: I’m just trying to get you to think, about what it might be like in the job.
ME: But all I’m asking is for advice for the interview, about...
HIM: What, they’ve offered you an interview?

I still feel, then, no further forward. I rang a friend, who said ‘buy yourself some new nail polish and remember to keep smiling.’ Possibly the clearest advice I’m going to get...

* The Mental Health Foundation survey of 2001 found that 63% of employers would categorically refuse to consider employing a person with gaps in their CV caused by ‘mental health problems’... though how the survey defined/conceptualised the phrase ‘mental health problems’ (a phrase I hate) is unclear. A Mind survey from around this time (I can’t find the reference) found that people who’ve been in prison experience less hassle in obtaining work than those who’ve been in mental hospitals. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 2005 tries to say this shouldn’t happen. However, a 2007 study from Durham University managed to statistically demonstrate that the DDA has done nothing to combat discrimination against job applicants. The problem being, that you need to disclose that you’ve mad (or have ‘a past history of mental health condition/s’ ) in order to claim DDA protection, which doesn’t even in itself work.
** Think Szasz, Laing, Engels, Ilych
***This does not apply after 2.4 units or more of alcohol. Give me a glass of crisp, dry chardonnay and I'll tell you anything. But I would never drink before a job interview.
****The Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
*****As far I ever I am aware, this is not true. Being afraid of workplace discrimination is not a valid category under which anyone can claim state benefits. A somewhat incontinent friend once tried, and was instructed by the DWP tribunal to wear more deodorant.


lilwatchergirl said...

Do you know, I've heard other stories of an advisor at the EHRC with an apparently rather current experience of ADHD. And about another unhelpful comparison with diabetes. Except I think this person was a woman. Do you think they have a policy of only employing people with ADHD who like to use diabetes as a metaphor...?

So ultimately, to say ‘I’m being healed through the grace of Christ’ is simply to say ‘I’m a Christian’. And they’ll know that.

Heh. Classic. Except I don't think they *would* know that. They're a bit theologically dense, some of these Christian types, you know. ;) But seriously - I have managed to get away with saying things like that...

Have you come to any conclusions about what you might say? I'm in favour of the come-clean approach, too - but I quote the DDA at these people a lot all the time, in order to cover my own back and so forth. On only a couple of occasions has this failed to have a positive effect.

P.S. Good luck with the interview!

Erika Baker said...

It's hard to comment here without knowing anything about you.
It really depends on how creative you can be about the four years you spent not working in paid employment.
Did you, even remotely, help look after someone else? did you do any kind of voluntary work, however little? Did you do any kind of research (for that PHD you had envisaged, or for a book or something....)?

Is it at all possible that you find something you did do rather than focus on what you didn't do, and stress that cleverly so that it looks as though you had still been usefully active?

grace said...

Well, my nails are looking all shiny. Thankd for your thoughts. I think, as ever, all I can do is wait until they ask... only then will I get a sense of any attitude behind the asking. Erika, you're right that throughtout those years I wasn't entirely doing nothing... with some manouvring I can knock months off the gap with bits of voluntary work. Mostly, I just wrote. Shame that back then, blogging had yet to be invented...

Erika Baker said...

Excellent. So you were trying to establish yourself as a novelist....writer of theology or scientific papers, whatever it was, and after many rejections from publishing houses/journals/peers you realised after 4 long years that you had given it enough effort and that it was not likely to be a fulltime career.
If pushed, you might be able to show fragments of your writing.

It's the kind of attempt at a creative life that many wish they had the courage for, and many return from with a sigh years later.
It should certainly explain a gap in employment, especially as your last position was in a church - the kind of place a lofty idealist dreamer might end up in after a failed writing career.

Good luck!