In the March 10, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader will need time off for a medical procedure soon after starting a new job. Must the new employer be told before the employee starts work?

Question

new employerI tore my ACL playing volleyball. I just got over the hurdle of getting hired, but my new employer doesn’t know about my injury. I start next week and I am hoping to schedule my surgery in the next couple of months. However, I am not sure how to have this conversation with my new employer. Do I pretend as if the injury is new? Do I tell them that my surgery is already scheduled? I will be out for 7-14 days after surgery, although I am hoping I could work from home after the first 7 days. How do I approach this conversation? Any advice would be so helpful!

Thanks so much, I love your newsletter. It has helped me see my value as an employee and has helped me stop feeling weird about taboo subjects like pay. I tell all my friends about it when they’re having work trouble or are job hunting.

Nick’s Reply

Sorry to hear about your injury. This is really a decision you must make for yourself. I’ll try to give you a few things to consider.

What to tell and when

First, although you already have the injury, your surgery is not yet scheduled, and you have no idea when your doctor will be able to do it – so there is nothing firm you can tell the employer. You cannot in all honesty supply a date when you will have to interrupt your work. So, you start the job and, when the time comes, you notify your employer that you are scheduled for surgery and ask what the policy is for such a situation. You may find they are quite cooperative, especially if you volunteer to work from home while you recuperate.

I believe that as long as you accepted the job and agreed to a start date and you follow through, time off for a medical reason is not unusual – even if it’s so soon. You could start any job and get hit by a truck the next day – what then? I’m not trying to rationalize hiding information from the employer. I’m trying to emphasize that a medical matter should not play into a hiring decision, as long as you plan to do the job you were hired to do, and that includes helping minimize the impact on your new employer as reasonably as possible.

Do you have an ethical obligation to the new employer?

Second, the ethical consideration is not as clear as it may seem. I’m not sure whether this is really an ethical matter at all. I think it’s a practical one. Suppose you stayed at your old job and took the time off for surgery. That employer will have to deal with your time off. The point is, some employer will have to deal with it. Is it unethical to get surgery while at your present job? Of course not. So, why is it unethical to get surgery shortly after starting the new job?

You don’t have a choice about taking care of your health. It’s a reality that everyone that relies on you must deal with.

Now, you could give the new employer a heads-up before you accept and start the new job. I think your concern is that this may lead the employer to withdraw the job offer, right? Well, would that be ethical of the employer? If you were made a job offer because you’re qualified to do the job, how does two weeks off for a health issue matter? You’ll do the job when you’re hired, and you’ll keep doing it after you return.

I think this is really a matter of any employer – your current one or the new one – managing its employees. And that includes employees’ medical issues. It’s part of any business.

(For further perspective on a job seeker’s ethical disclosure obligations to a new employer, see Am I cheating on the company that’s interviewing me?)

Try the shoe on the other foot

Telling them in advance puts you at risk of losing a job you want. Telling them later may upset them. Either way, it will cost them work time. What’s worse in the overall scheme of things? I think the former is worse because it would deprive you of a job altogether.

Ethics are a fine thing to consider. But put the shoe on the other foot. If the new employer knows it’s going to experience a business downturn soon, that might result in layoffs, must it tell you this before you accept a job there? Perhaps – but I don’t think it ever would! This is part of any business, too.

(Here’s another good example of this “shoe on another foot”: Why do companies hide the benefits?)

Do what’s comfortable

“Telling all” in the hiring process is not necessary or prudent. I think the most important thing in a hiring transaction is to deliver what you promise – to do good work under whatever circumstances ensue. You may find the employer will take care of the cost of the time you need to take off for surgery by not paying you for that time, because you’re “on probation.” You’ll have to live with that, just as the employer must live without you for a short time.

So what’s the best course of action? Now that you have some things to think about, my advice is to do what feels right to you. I’d love to know what you decide and how this works out.

Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter. Good luck with your surgery. I wish you a speedy and complete recovery!

What does your new employer really need to know before you start your job? Is my advice ethical? What’s your advice to this reader?

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40 Comments
  1. I can only really think of one thing that you might tell an employer between when you get hired and your first official day: disability accommodations. (i.e telling them before you get hired could work against you but telling it first day or later could lead to trouble)

    Anything else, like vacations, telling too early would, I believe, only get you labeled as “trouble” or “risky”.

    I know that on my first job, my family had already planned a Christmas vacation and so I had to schedule it right away (to try and work things out right away to be polite and try and avoid any pitfalls of possibly being needed a day or before Christmas.)

  2. Back in the seventies, I knew a guy who was hired as a mechanical draftsman, upon graduating from a two year program at a community college, for General Electric in a small town in Iowa. The week before he was supposed to start, he broke his foot in a farming accident (helping his dad on the family farm). He called the HR Manager and told him what happened, and asked if he could still start that Monday. His foot was in a cast, and he was using crutches, but they allowed him to start as he was sitting at a drafting board all day. Back in the day, there were still employers who had some semblance of honor. I’d wager you’d be hard pressed to find this courtesy today.

  3. Any decent employer won’t mind. And there is another thing. People sometimes are critical to a job, and being out of circulation for a few weeks might be a problem. (Bad management when this happens, but it still does.) A new employee, learning the job, is less likely to be critical, so being off a week or two a few months into a job might have less impact than being off two years into the job.

  4. If the company cannot accept a week or two of leave for surgery some day down the road, is this a place you would want to work?

    What if you do not tell, but the employer gets to understand you knew the surgery in advance, and retaliates by firing you?

    This is actually a good test if it is a place worth working for.

  5. While I believe we have a litigious society today, it may be worthwhile to consult a good attorney prior to starting the job. One fear I’d have with today’s flakey employers, and with at-will employment, is the propensity to black mark this reader as “damaged goods”, having some medical “pre-condition” (injury requiring eventual surgery), being viewed as a “future drain” on their health insurance plan, or a candidate for some eventual “workers compensation” claim. Case in point, after a lengthy bout of unemployment, and an exhaustive job search during this last recession, I finally had to settle for a one year tenure stopover job with a dubious employer. A young engineer who was the Production Manager made it very clear their blatant ageism by openly espousing the view “older workers are a potential drain on our health insurance”. At the time, I recommended a welder I knew who was 62 (I just turned 62 myself yesterday) for a job there (which I later regretted for the guy’s sake). He had just graduated from a 9 month welding program at a local community college after going through a job retraining program for older displaced workers. Like myself, all new employees had to go through a Shylock temp agency for the first 90 days of employment at this place. One day the guy became violently ill, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Just prior to starting the job, he had undergone hernia surgery. Evidently, a mesh that had been placed in his stomach had been improperly installed, or had somehow pulled apart, and the guy had a major infection. He underwent emergency surgery, but the rub was, he’d be out for 2-3 weeks minimal recovery. They instantly terminated him, and were off the hook for UI as he was still with the temp agency, and the temp agency was in turn off the hook for UI. The guy eventually found another job with a better company.

  6. The process to be offered and accept a state position is arduous, unpredictable and long. Between taking the test, notification of results, and rankings, scheduling the interviews, making the offers and announcing the start date – the process went for over NINE MONTHS! So of course, it is entirely possible and even likely you may have made plans with conflicts (re: the announced start date or shortly after starting). As it turned out, the start date was the Tuesday after July 4 holiday; I would have missed the first 4 days. Mind you, I was already a current state employee (so already familiar with all the HR and administrative, regulatory and program background. Additionally, I had 4+ years of experience doing this job (the new one) in the past. GUESS WHAT happened when I stated I would be starting on day 5 due to prearranged vacation (cruise). The State withdrew the offer! The moral of the story is DO NOT DO OR SAY ANYTHING TO JEOPARDIZE MOVING FORWARD WITH THE NEW POSITION. P.S. eventually I was able to apply again and started, I was the only person out of 7 participants who consistently scored the highest on all the testing.

  7. If you have a desk job, why can’t you get back to work sooner? I’m sure you can find a way to adjust your work station to accommodate your injury. Maybe you can work half days to get oriented. Either way, try to show your new employer how committed you are to the job. I had a rotator cuff repair and was back at work in 2 days (plus a weekend).

    • Apparently you didn’t read the entire post. During the 9 months it took to get a start date, I planned and started on a Cruise. No information was given about the start date, not even a clue. No one aid ‘if we offer you a position, you should expect to start work in early July.’ Nothing.

  8. I was on the other end. Over a decade ago I was recruited to rapidly build and run a group of specialized people. I came on board and things went well for the first month and management was very pleased with my performance, but I needed to hire folks with specific talents and abilities. One person really stood out and after the appropriate interviews with staff and consensus was reached , I made her an offer. This person was hired. as we all felt she was very qualified for the position. The offer was accepted and on her first day she announced she was three months pregnant. My immediate supervisor demanded that I rescind the offer and terminate her the minute this became known. Using the same rationale and ethics Nick stated above, I stuck to my guns. I kept her on board and her performance was remarkable. However my supervisor immediately lost confidence in me (for doing the right thing) made my life a living hell. and not long after the baby was born I was told my services were no longer required. with the company. It seems I was working for someone who did not share my values. The person I hired performed so well she continued with the company until its demise.

    • @George Campbell: Interesting story about the pregnant woman you hired and your employer’s response to her announcement of being pregnant. Apparently your employer (assuming that you’re in the US) never heard of the federal law that prohibits discrimination of pregnant persons. It has been around since 1978, and although there has been some chipping away at it, it remains on the books.

      Your story also reminds me of a saying of which a former supervisor was fond: “No good deed goes unpunished.” You hired the best person for the job, who happened to be female and three months pregnant. Pregnancy isn’t a disability nor a disease. The woman you hired worked out–apparently she returned to work after the birth of her baby, and worked for the company until they closed. But you, the one responsible for hiring such a good, skilled, worker, got fired for not rescinding the job offer. Just when I think I’ve heard everything re bad employer behavior!

      • Marybeth, every good deed always gets punished — continuously, harshly, forever, to infinity and beyond.

        • @Omar Schmidlap: Sadly, this is true. It is too bad that people get punished for doing the right thing, or even for being successful (as George Campbell was in making a good hire). That should have been celebrated, not punished.

    • @George: I’d turn the rat in to your state’s department of employment/labor.

  9. Don’t tell the company so that they can honestly tell their health insurance company that you said nothing about any pre=-existing condition if any question arises. (The health insurance issue does raise other questions about the new job.)

  10. I would prefer to know in advance if my new employer will accept my impending absence; Being terminated for nondisclosure is worse than keeping the old job where the absence is more likely to be accepted.

    • @Howard: “terminated for nondisclosure”? Sorry, I don’t see that. I do understand your point, however — you’d rather disclose than risk problems later.

  11. Another consideration: the actual medical costs. Some employers are self-insured. I know people who were fired because their medical costs were too high. If you tell at the interview this could come into the equation for the employer. Not saying it’s right or wrong, just mentioning.

  12. I get the fact that hiring managers must take into account potential costs, but it’s gotten to the point where many, if not most, want to know your personal life, your hobbies, interests and, of course, your medical conditions without disclosing THEIR personal details in kind. It’s downright creepy and bereft of any actual cost-benefit analysis to the company at hand.

    Did the country get taken over by corporate aliens from another planet, perhaps? Because that would explain a lot.

    • Right you are, the intrusive (and often illegal) questioning is very creepy. I’ve sat across the table from interviewers who gave me the “willies”. I mean like sitting across the table from Charles Manson. As I grew older (and finally wiser), I flat out refused to answer such intrusive questions. I just responded (with some tone of annoyance and a frown) “yeah, I’m not going to answer that”. Or I’d say “yeah, that’s nobody’s business”. That usually ended it then and there, and I was shown the door. If they persisted, or resorted to bullying, I got up and walked out. I’ve actually had three interviewers (two young women and one older man) chimp out, and follow me out to my truck in the parking lot. Now that was downright creepy! I think this blog actually covers dealing with rude, inappropriate, or creeper interviewers. No one needs to put up with these shenanigans. These unicorn and rainbows “HR experts“ who preach to candidates to “roll with the punches” in these types of scenarios, live in a vacuum.

      • @Antonio: Right you are. Everyone needs to decide in advance how they will handle such inappropriate questions and demands. That makes it easier to respond appropriately in what can be an emotional situation. It’s interesting that HR — whose job is to ensure compliance with the law — breaks the law so cavalierly so often.

  13. I agree. What I can say about that, and that I’ve learned from Nick, is that this tells me who they are so I welcome everything they want to show me. Then I can make a decision (to walk away or enter with eyes wide open).

  14. Contact your EEOC in your state and ask them.
    https://www.employmentlawworldview.com/is-a-temporary-injury-a-disability/

    it appears that if a body is limited, even temporarily, then it can qualify as a disability, hence you can’t be fired, an accommodation needs to be explored.

    Many employers believe they can fire anybody for any reason and have never heard of the American disability act.

    I have as much faith in today’s employers as in the legitimacy of the alleged coronavirus to exist (repeat often…that will make anything a fact).

    • @Jack: I was waiting for someone to bring up the ADA angle on this. Thanks for it! Would love to hear from others about it.

  15. I read of a divorced couple with four children, the dad had primary custody but the mom carried the kids on her health insurance because hers had better benefits.

    The mom’s union rep wanted her to drop the kids from their plan since she wasn’t the custodial parent.

  16. This is off subject, but yesterday, I had an appointment with a good account of my employer’s. The Purchasing Agent and I have known each other for years, in fact, we worked together at a steel company many years ago. As I waited for my appointment in the lobby, I sat next to an older African American gentleman who had a welding helmet and welding gloves. As I worked as a welder for 6 years as a much younger man, and I’ve supplemented my day job for 7 years teaching as an evening adjunct instructor in a 9 month welding program at a local community college, I struck up a conversation with him. I mentioned it looked like he was taking a welding test, and he informed me that he’d just taken it and had passed. He told me he was 64, and was planning on taking social security at 66, then continuing to work full-time. I told him I turned 62 (yesterday), and that I too was planning on taking social security at 66-1/2, and then continue working full-time as well, but definitely somewhere else than my current employer. We visited about ageism, and about the current state of employers in our country. Like myself, this man was clearly a man of principle, and one who gave a good faith effort. After my appointment, I ran into him as we both were exiting the plant. He told me he’d been hired, but opted to work in the powder coat department, and he was retiring his welding helmet for good. I congratulated him, and wished him the best. This company had a lot of “gray heads” on the shop floor, and in the offices (mid-size privately owned company originally started by two brothers in their garage in 1946). Generally a good sign, IMO. The best birthday present I had yesterday was meeting this gentleman, and seeing an older worker get a fair shot, and get hired.

    • @Antonio: Glad you shared that. There are good employers and smart businesses out there.

  17. This is a case where the legalities vary greatly depending on where you live. For example in Europe, the employer is generally not allowed to ask questions about health, family planning etc. and in case they do, the applicant is legally allowed to lie instead of telling the truth. There are some exceptions and differences between countries, but that’s the main principle.

    The advice here would be the same: don’t mention the surgery in advance. Even if it’s not legal to use that as a reason not to choose you, if they do say no you’ll never know whether they did. When you’re employed, the surgery cannot be used as a reason to terminate the contract.

    • @Arto: “the applicant is legally allowed to lie instead of telling the truth”

      REALLY??

      • I can talk only for Norway, but yes; the employer is not allowed to ask about e.g. pregnancy. So if the employer asks anyway and the candidate lies and says no, no bun in the oven, and then discloses when it becomes undeniable, the employer has no choice but accepting it. After all, some women discover the pregnancy late, so who can prove the lie? The work environment may get sour, though.

        If the condition is obvious even without questions, e.g. a handicap or a big pregnant belly, that is another issue. Unfortunately, pregnant women regularly find that employers see the big belly and immediately makes the “no” decision – although they are legally not allowed to use that as an argument, so they make up something about “not a good fit”.

        If employers lie, why not candidates?

      • > [When employer asks about health, pregnancy, family planning etc. in an interview]
        > “the applicant is legally allowed to lie instead of telling the truth”

        I don’t know the situation in all European countries, but can answer for Finland and Germany: yes, really.

        There is no paragraph in the law specifically allowing it, but there have been cases taken to court when the employer has tried to terminate the contract based on the dishonesty of the applicant. As far as I know, the employee has always won.

        Naturally this only applies when the employer asks questions which he wouldn’t be allowed to ask in the first place. In other interview questions the applicant must stick to the truth or they may face consequences such as having their contract terminated.

        The legality of certain questions is also partly dependent on the type of the job. For example employers are usually not allowed to ask about the personal financial situation of the applicant – but if the job involves handling large amounts of cash it is a relevant and thus legally allowed question. Religion is usually considered a private matter, but if the employer is a religious entity such as a church they may ask the applicant’s religion and expect a truthful answer.

  18. I’m going to second Antonio Zoli’s (happy birthday!) recommendation to consult an attorney before doing anything. The LW should search for one who practices employment law, and he should ask around (family and friends) for recommendations rather than randomly picking someone out of the phone book or online. He should also ask attorneys whether they give initial consultations for free or charge a fee. Some will do the former, and if the LW’s case isn’t complicated/doesn’t require a lot of research, he might find that a single consultation with an attorney is enough to get the answers he needs. Laws can vary widely by state, so it would be best to ask an expert.

    I’d opt for caution at this point. As Nick pointed out, the surgery hasn’t been scheduled yet, and LW doesn’t know how long he will have to wait to have it done. If his injury doesn’t preclude him from doing his job (e.g., he has a desk job), then I think I would wait. One of my cousins tore his ACL last year and he waited nearly 5 months before he could have surgery (combination of his employer-based insurance and the doctor’s schedule). He has the added benefit of being able to work from home, so going into an office while laid up post-surgery wasn’t an issue. Yet LW should notify the employer at some point/not wait too long so the employer can figure out how tasks will get completed while LW is out.

    I don’t know whether a health insurance company would consider a torn ACL a “pre-existing condition” and if that would be enough for the employer to rescind the job offer. Insurance company decisions often don’t make sense to me. I would think that a torn ACL (done while playing volleyball) wouldn’t be considered a pre-existing condition and thus wouldn’t be of concern to the bean counters at the employer’s health insurance company. But who knows? They consider weird things to be pre-existing conditions, and that might be enough for the company to decide to hire someone else. The thing is, at some time sooner or later, EVERYONE needs to see doctors, have various health issues. Employers need to remember that they’re hiring human beings, not robots, and even robots can break down and need to be fixed.

  19. Employers have gotten so squirrelly and flakey. Anything to disqualify candidates or terminate them on a whim. I’m convinced many make a profit strictly by accident. Years ago, I had a wise older man who’d come up through the ranks tell me “half-wits hire, retain, and promote other half-wits”. Sweet for sweet.

    • I’ve often said that most companies make a profit despite their best efforts.

      • When you have a system that’s enabled mass fraud, especially at tax-payer expense, then it becomes like the movie Idiocracy, where the dumb (but politically connected) dominate the hiring landscape, because there’s no longer any real competition to weed them out. Pretty soon, I suspect that your political affiliations will greatly affect the next interview or even your current position.

        Which leads me to a sort-of-off-topic article I read from the HR research group, Gartner. Read the article, especially this gem:

        “HR leaders must partner with managers to monitor political discussions among team members, as well as address and manage sensitive political conversations between team members.”

        Not address actual conflicts at work, but “monitor political discussions”. CREEPY CREEPY CREEPY!

        https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-02-18-gartner-survey-shows-47–of-employees-report-being-di

        • @DW: Creepy is right!! Doesn’t HR have anything better to do — like go recruit good hires???

    • LOL, ain’t (sic) that the truth!

  20. One grave error I’ve made in the past is going into job interviews like going into a confessional. I’ve heard it said “less is more”. With employers looking for any reason to throw you under the bus, I think being sealed lipped, and to the point and concise, is the best way. There are those employers who ask illegal and intrusive questions. At that point, I deflect such questions, and I now disqualify the employer. No point, IMO, to step into a hornets nest.

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