[posted on Forbes Magazine 11/1/11 by Debra Angel MacDougall]

We are often asked, Should I tell the employer about … being fired, a single parent, HIV+, my divorce, criminal conviction, learning disability, past drug use, bad back, DUI, disability, wanting to start a family? … and the list goes on. The answer is quite simple — it depends. Here are the filters we use to teach job seekers when to tell or not to tell:

Level One: Don’t Tell If You Don’t Have To

We all have issues which, if shared, could cause employers concern. In fact, the #1 way employers discover reasons to screen us out is that we tell them. Keep your personal and professional lives separate and, whenever possible, your past mistakes in the past. So, if an issue isn’t obvious, won’t come up when the employer does a reference, background or Internet check, doesn’t impact your ability to do the job, and isn’t a health and safety issue … then Don’t Tell!

This includes personal and family issues, criminal records that have been expunged, medical and recovery issues that do not cause obvious gaps in work history (some gaps can be attributed to a co-occurring, less concerning issue like a return to school or parenting), and most issues you have resolved. Remember to keep your personal and professional lives separate even after you’re hired, so it doesn’t impede your promotability.

Level Two: Share when asked;“Tell Me About Yourself”

If the employer will notice the issue when they meet you, it’s wise to remove the distraction by addressing the ‘pink elephant’ in the room. If you don’t, they may be unable to focus on why you’d be great for the job. This includes obvious disabilities, age, gender, ethnicity, weight, pregnancy, etc. Of course, many of these issues are illegal for employers to discriminate against, yet if they believe it could negatively impact their business, they will.

Employers won’t mention these concerns, so you must give them a reason not to be concerned in one of two ways — subtly or directly. In either case, start by determining why the employer might be concerned about hiring someone like you. Often, it’s based on myths held about ‘people like you’ — older workers may be perceived as lacking technological savvy, unwilling to learn, unhealthy, or unable to work well with a young supervisors or teams. Although the employer’s concern may be valid for some, if it’s not true about you, then prove you are the exception to the rule. ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ is the perfect place to debunk their myth because it’s often the first question asked allowing you to address the concern early so they are fully engaged.

To use the subtle approach, don’t actually mention the issue, but subtly share facts and stories to demonstrate that their myths are not true about you. An older worker might share that they have recently joined LinkedIn and are enjoying learning how to take advantage of all it offers, that they run twice a week to stay in shape, and share a story that features successfully working with younger people. The advantage of being subtle is that you’re not introducing a potential concern if the employer hasn’t thought of it, nor displaying a ‘chip on your shoulder’.

A direct approach is sometimes preferable if the issue is too distracting. We once helped a job seeker who only had one arm. He shared that when he walked into the interview it became a polite formality unless he quickly proved the employer shouldn’t be concerned. His response to, ‘Tell me about yourself’ was, “You may have noticed, I only have one arm, but this does not interfere with my ability to be a great administrative assistant. I can type 65 words per minute with my specialized keyboard, I use a headset to answer phones and free up my hand for other tasks, and my right arm is very strong, so I have no problem carrying and moving things. I actually think it’s been a positive, because it’s forced me to become very creative, and I often see solutions to problems that others miss. Also, others often say that my positive attitude about my obvious disability creates a more positive can-do attitude among co-workers. I’m confident that when you talk to my references, they will say it has not been a disability”. This direct approach gave the employer permission to ask additional questions in order to reduce their concerns. And when delivered in a positive, casual manner it increased their comfort with the issue and the candidate.

Level Three: Tell After They Love You

For issues that are not noticeable but will come up when the employer does a reference, back ground or Internet check, it’s important that you share your side of the story before they hear it from someone else. It’s equally important that you give the employer lots of reasons to hire you before introducing an issue that could get you screened out – this keeps the scales tipped in your favor. For that reason, wait until the end of the interview, after they love you, to introduce the concern and offer your good answer. In our book, The 6 Reasons You’ll Get the Job, we teach a proven 5-step process for creating a good answer that reduces the employer’s concerns about these issues, whether criminal convictions, having been fired, major illnesses, previous addiction, or poor choices in your personal life. (FYI: It’s true that some small employers rely on their intuition rather than conducting background checks, but don’t assume they all do.)

Level Four: Tell After They Offer You the Job, but Before You Accept

For issues that will impact how you do your job, but not whether you can do the job –for example, if you have a bad back and can’t sit for long periods of time you may need a special chair and to stand during meetings, or if you’re pregnant you will require maternity leave in the near future — mention it after they offer you the job, but before accepting. Although these issues are also often illegal for employers to discriminate against, you don’t want them to feel tricked into hiring you because it can have ramification later. By discussing it before you accept the employer’s offer, you reduce their sense of having been deceived, while minimizing the chance they’ll rescind the offer.

Remember, they are hiring you because they believe you will make them a lot more money than you cost them. The key to avoiding their disfavor is to offer a solution to the concern when you mention the issue. For example, if you have a bad back minimize the impact by offering to bring in your own desk chair, and to sit at the back of the room during meetings so you won’t be disruptive, or if you’re pregnant explain your plan to minimize the impact of your maternity leave, and reassure them that you are coming back and worth the investment.

Level Five: Tell After You Accept – With HR

If an issue impacts health and safety but not your ability to do the job, once you are hired, discuss it with HR rather than your supervisor. HR will share it with those who need to know and remind them that employee confidentiality is in play. This includes being HIV positive, susceptible to seizures, color blind, restraining orders, wage garnishment, etc.

Remember, if an issue interferes with your ability to do the job consider choosing a different job. However, if the employer agrees that what you offer in other areas outweighs the risk you can still get hired.