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Should I disclose autism on my resume?

In the August 7, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter we discuss what employers need to know about your autism.

Question

My son is a college graduate on the autism spectrum. Should he hint at his disability on his resume? Interviewers are surprised when they first meet him, and the interview goes south.

autismNick’s Reply

This is a tough call. A good answer depends on being able to assess your son’s condition, which I obviously cannot do. But I can offer an example that might help you think about this in a useful way.

A resume “on the spectrum”

A young man approached me after a presentation I did recently and raised the same question. He quietly disclosed that he’s “on the spectrum.” Through conversation I quickly learned that this Millennial is articulate, friendly, smart, self-motivated, a bit nervous but focused. His social skills are good. While I could see evidence of autism, I also saw the kind of enthusiasm and acumen I’d want in a job candidate.

We discussed his work skills in some detail — he’s an accountant — and I learned enough that I’d  recommend him to an employer for a job interview. But you can imagine that if all an employer sees is his resume with a disclosure that he’s autistic, the employer might reject his resume out of hand. (That might be unfair and inappropriate — and possibly illegal — but it’s what happens every day.) And that’s the problem.

A resume — for anyone, not just for a person with a disability — is an insufficient representation of who they are and what they can do. It’s a poor “marketing tool” no matter how well it is written. (See Resume Blasphemy.) I’ll tell you what I say even to top executives with stellar credentials: Your resume cannot defend you.

Your resume cannot defend you

What do I mean by that? Every resume raises more questions and concerns than it can possibly answer. A manager reading a resume thinks thoughts and draws quick conclusions — on average, in just six seconds — that we cannot imagine or anticipate. So, it’s not prudent to trust that dopey document to get us a job interview.

If your son discloses that he’s autistic on his resume, we cannot predict the outcome. An employer might make the worst assumptions and ignore him altogether. Or, they may bring him in so they can check off a box on their Equal Opportunity report, without hiring him. Of course, it could also lead to a hire, if the employer genuinely believes in staffing diversity. It’s hard to guess, and you shouldn’t try.

What your son should do is maximize his chances of getting a job interview by getting referred and recommended by someone the employer trusts.

Personal referrals can recommend and defend you

My guess is there are jobs where your son would perform well, even if he requires some accommodation. (For more information about accommodations, read this report: Employees with Asperger Syndrome.) By getting referred to such employers through a personal connection, disclosure of his autism would be done in a frank but supportive way. In other words, the person making the referral can both endorse your son and defend him when questions about autism arise.

For example, “John is on the autism spectrum, but I can vouch that for the job you’re trying to fill, he’d be great. I give him my personal endorsement.”

That breaks down the wall like no resume can. It eliminates the surprise factor. Someone the employer trusts is disclosing the disability, but in a useful context that emphasizes John can do the work and would make a good employee. Whether a job applicant has a disability or not, this is what any good employer wants to know first and foremost. It’s what leads to job interviews and job offers.

Avoid surprises, avoid rejection

When something on a resume surprises an employer, it often leads to automatic rejection. Likewise, you don’t want an interviewer to be surprised. You want them to know exactly who they’re about to meet — someone that a trusted contact has endorsed and recommended.

For suggestions about how to work with personal referrals, see:

The Preemptive Reference

Referrals: How to gift someone a job (and why)

So my advice is, don’t rely on a resume that cannot possibly defend or advocate for your son. Only someone who can personally recommend him can or will do that. I know it’s hard work to line that up, but this is the exact same advice I teach to executives at the top business (MBA) schools including Wharton, Cornell, Northwestern, UCLA, Harvard and Rutgers. No one can afford to rely on a Word document to “get them in the door,” whether they’ve got autism or not.

Get past the obstacles

Please don’t assume that lining up a good personal recommendation is a daunting task. It requires work and effort, but it’s the critical first step toward landing a new job. You might find the suggestions in this article a good start: Ask The Headhunter In A Nutshell: The short course. It’s helped many people get past all kinds of obstacles.

Discrimination in hiring is illegal. If your son believes an employer has violated the law, he should consult a good employment attorney. But his goal should be to find an employer who’s goal is to hire good workers — and my goal is to offer advice that will help your son get past obstacles that might keep him away from employers who’d love to fill a job with a good applicant.

I wish your son the best.

If you have a disability, how do you manage your job search to avoid bias and rejection? How can this reader use personal referrals to get in the door?

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14 Comments
  1. The only purpose of a resume is to get an introduction/interview. Anything negative or “needs explaining” is saved for the face-to-face. For example, I have worked some unrelated jobs after being laid off. I do not put those on my resume. But I do bring them up at some point in the face-to-face.

  2. Nick, as always great advice about getting a referral rather than being a cold-call candidate. If in any case he does land an interview just on the strength of his resume, I recommend that he be up front with the interviewer before the meeting — because otherwise the interviewer (even with no intention of being biased) will be surprised, discomfited, possibly uncomfortable, and that can make for an awkward interview. Something as simple as calling to confirm the interview and mentioning, “Just so you’re not surprised when we meet, I am on the autism spectrum so may not look you in the eye. But I assure you I’ll be listening to everything you say and will be ready to talk about what I can do for your company.” (I recommend this strategy to any job seeker who has a visible disability because it’s difficult to recover an interview that gets off on the wrong foot.)

    It will also be helpful for this young man to think about and prepare to discuss how his attributes and behaviors will add value. For example, having a great eye for detail or an intense ability to focus or exceptional math skills. Match what he can do to the needs of the position and company and be ready with examples of how he’s used those skills successfully in the past. Ask for an opportunity to demonstrate his skills so the employer can see them in action!

  3. Discrimination is just that discrimination, autism or not, fully intellectually challenged, wheel chair bound, Male, Female, Asian, Black, White, 60+ , LGBT or whatever discrimination is tough to prove. Resume should sell your abilities, not provide an out for the hiring company.

    I see this all the time in the acting world, TV show may want a middle aged, fat, Hispanic, male that speaks the Queens English, for a part. that’s what they want. but in my eyes radically discriminatory, but widely accepted in the industry. there is no chance for a short skinny girl in her mid 20’s to get that part.

  4. I don’t see the need to reveal this to anyone at anytime. If the candidate has the confidence, skill set, and/or prior experience that demonstrates he can do the job then what is the point?

    The workplace is filled with people who have all manner of social/mental/personality issues, diagnosed or not. There’s the “crazy boss” (exaggerated characterization or perhaps not); additionally, our own anxieties, quirks, and traits may cause others to raise their eyebrows. I would say that 75% of work is navigating varied personalities and temperaments.

    I think we need to hold our cards closer to the vest when interviewing (in general) because there’s so much more to all of our work history/stories than a resume or interview can reveal, and most hiring/HR people neither have the inclination nor the ability to piece together a complete, flattering picture of a candidate. The interview process is more of an opportunity for a candidate to be screened out than offered a job. A resume and an interview are not inquisitions.

    I’d like to know the background/traits/managing style of who is interviewing me. As discussed many times in ATH, the hiring process needs more focus on going both ways and allowing for company transparency.

    • @ Face: “I don’t see the need to reveal this to anyone at anytime. If the candidate has the confidence, skill set, and/or prior experience that demonstrates he can do the job then what is the point?”

      Totally agree. HR has a difficult enough time as it is. Complex thinking is not their strong suit. :( Also, doesn’t the tech community have a number of productive employees on the spectrum?

  5. Besides the good tips on getting an interview, I think this person needs some interview coaching. While informing someone of his status before the interview is better than doing it on the resume, perhaps starting the interview out with disclosure would be even better, since I could see the interviewer building up the problem to be bigger than it is. Being upfront is likely to be disarming, and then he can proceed describing what his education will bring to the company.
    In some fields being on the spectrum is far from rare.

  6. Hey Nick,
    Was just talking about your article with my boss. Very interesting topic.. Also one that hits close to home with me for a number of reasons.

    We came up with an idea that I thought might be worth relaying back to the “asker”….
    Your son should send out his resume regularly, without mentioning anything other than information directly pertaining to the specific role. Essentially, whatever he’s been doing thus-far that has resulted in the interviews you mentioned.

    Then… Once he gets invited to the interview, he should call or email the person who reached out to invite him to interview, and he should inform them his status within the spectrum. That way, he can’t get turned down due to discrimination, and the Hiring Manager would not be surprised when they met! If anything, I think the HM would hopefully do their due diligence going into the interview, just as any candidate would. Maybe even become better-educated on the topic and understand that it likely would not interfere with the intricacies of the role which your son is interviewing for.

    Just wanted to shoot that idea over to you, just because I fully understand how difficult the situation may be for this young man, and would do anything I could to help.

    Thanks Nick!

    Charlie Laurer
    Ascend

  7. Re job candidates on the spectrum, some companies now have specific recruiting programs to reach out to adults with autism, including Microsoft, SAP, EY, JPMorgan, Travelers Insurance, and DXC Technology.

    Here are two related links, re this year’s “Autism at Work Summit” held at Microsoft:

    https://blog.cognoa.com/autism-at-work-summit-2018-neurodiversity-programs-benefit-all-employees

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/autism-work-summit-2018-day-1-paul-austin

  8. In California, it is illegal to for an employer to ask about a disability during an interview. There is no reason the applicant should disclose his disability on his résumé in California. Once he is hired, he can then disclose and request reasonable accommodations. Don’t give the employer another reason not to hire him.
    The writer’s fear is valid that the interviewer figuring out that her son has autism during his interview and then not hiring him for that reason. Although in California the interviewer cannot ask questions about any disability, there is no question that applicants are rejected because of a perceived disability, even though it is illegal for an employer to do so. The burden is high on an applicant claiming s/he was not hired because of a disability: The applicant must prove s/he was at least as qualified as the applicants who were hired or considered, which may then give rise to a discrimination claim. Failure to hire cases are difficult cases to win: I have only taken one during my career.
    The purpose of the disability statutes (ADA, FEHA in California) is to allow disabled persons to work, to contribute to society, and to pay taxes instead of receiving government benefits (not completely altruistic). But it is an uphill fight we are fighting all the time.
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  9. Thank you for writing about this important topic, Nick, and for encouraging open dialogue to move toward better hiring practices. As responsible hirers, we need to go beyond the easy answers and mass tech solutions and remember that humans are complex and diverse, and to be effective, our hiring practices need to be as well.

  10. Just a couple of thoughts from my end.

    Nick is right that resumes don’t do a good job at defending anyone. Everyone has their own idea on what a good resume looks like and it all goes down hill from there. So, I would not mention anything in the resume or cover letter as it appears he is getting interviews so he’s doing something right.

    I think the idea of trying to network your way into a job is good as well. Any issues can be discussed beforehand.

    But, I think we may need to take things a bit farther. Even if he networks his way into a meeting, there is likely still going to be an interview of sorts. Is there someone that can give him some interview advice/practice, specifically someone who has experience with autism?

  11. My ‘handicap’ is that I’m in my mid fifties. I’ve been struggling to find a job for almost 4 years.

    A decade ago, when I was ten years younger I was able to find a new job within 3 months.

    I read a book where the author had a similar experience. He had submitted 130 applications; invited to 31 interviews. However, he didn’t get any job offers.

    Author was invited to present his resume to a networking group as he was often invited for an interview after submitting his application. Resume was previously sent to individual who requested the presentation.

    He phoned the author a couple of days afterwards and said that he was concerned that the author was not getting any job offers even though he was getting many interviews. As he had seen and heard him speak and noted that he was well spoken, adept and engaging he didn’t think that that was the problem.

    He said that when he reviewed the resume he assumed the author was in his early 40s, maybe 45 at the oldest.
    However when he met the author, he noticed that the author looked older, closer to mid 50s.

  12. Not to be a downer, but I have Aspergers myself. I was outright told by Department of Rehabilitation Services that would disability would likely ruin most interviews and that I’d need an in so that the interview would not be the main determination in getting the job. Thus, I can see why the kid would want to point it out on the resume, so that he doesn’t go down in flames in the interview. (However, I agree that putting it on the resume itself will likely do more harm than good.)

    The one temp job I did get was, in fact, where I was sort of referred by someone, and thus I believe the interview wasn’t the deciding factor.

    • @Mongoose: You don’t seem to be suggesting this yourself, but lots of people believe being referred by someone, or having an inside contact, is some how an unfair advantage, and that employers should pick hires based on “fair” and “objective” criteria – like resumes, experience, etc.

      But there’s nothing objective about hiring the best people. It’s all about judgment, and employers are smart to turn to the judgments and recommendations of others they trust. So I’m not surprised that when you were referred by someone you won the job. Good for you!

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