Are hiring managers discriminating against cancer survivors?

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Even after surviving cancer, the struggles that cancer sufferers face aren’t over. Research from the University of Michigan shows nearly a third of breast cancer survivors who were working when they began treatment were still unemployed four years later. Of those, 55% said it was important for them to work, and 39% were actively looking.

Cancer and Careers’ vice president Rebecca Nellis works with many cancer survivors to help them back into the workforce, and said that she has heard many anecdotes of job applicants who perceive that there is an active bias against them because of their medical issues.

“The way that there is bias is often more indirect,” Nellis said. “So that sense that a gap on your resume is a negative tends to be a problem for cancer survivors.”

The Michigan study also revealed a troubling sign of discrimination: women who received chemotherapy – which results in hair loss – were most likely to be unemployed.

For cancer survivors with visible signs of their trauma, it seems, employers often approach the situation tactlessly – and illegally. “We’ve certainly heard some very scary stories about people being asked outright inappropriate things, like have they used FMLA time, or have they been sick,” Nellis said.

Of course, HR departments will already be well aware of the legal restrictions and ramifications, since of course cancer is covered under the ADA. But it’s a reminder to train hiring managers of what to do if an applicant reveals that they have undergone cancer treatment, advised Nellis.

“Should they do so, it’s helpful for an (interviewer) to know what they can and cannot ask in response to that, which is ‘can you perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation’,” she said.

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