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THE QUESTION

I have a dilemma concerning my health, specifically, what I am obliged to say, either legally or morally, upon my return to the work force.

Like many Canadians, I was laid off. After a year, I made the final-four candidates list for a great business development job in my industry. Unfortunately, the day after my interview, I was diagnosed with a blood cancer. That was last August. I have since had a bone marrow transfusion, and am recovering my health and strength at home. The future is bright, and I have started to look for work, while confiding my condition and plans to a few close networking associates.

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Cancer can be a scary word, and coupled with my age, 58, probably relegates me to a job in retail. This, however, is not my plan, and I am looking for some advice about how to position my condition when networking and during job interviews.

THE ANSWER

It is great to hear that you are recovering from your fight with cancer. It sounds like your spirit is unscathed, and your future is indeed bright.

From a legal point of view, you have no obligation to disclose health-related matters to prospective employers or networking circles. According to Natalie MacDonald, founding partner of Toronto employment law firm Rudner MacDonald LLP, provincial and federal human rights legislation make it clear that employers are prohibited from discriminating against any worker on the basis of a disability.

"Employers should never inquire as to any prospective employee's health status, and there is no obligation for an employee to voluntarily disclose it, even if the illness may require time off for treatment or recovery, like cancer," Ms. MacDonald says.

Andy Nielsen, a labour and employment lawyer at Pink Larkin in Halifax, agrees, adding that "even if an employee's health condition impacts the employee's ability to carry out the duties of the position, an employer has the legal obligation to attempt to 'accommodate' that employee. For example, they can install physical accessibility devices, special software, or adjust hours of work."

That said, employment and labour lawyer Gregory Heywood of Roper Greyell LLP in Vancouver advises job candidates to be forthright if they cannot do the job. "The job applicant must answer appropriate questions honestly, and take issue with inappropriate questions, rather than not respond to them honestly."

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If a job requires that you are able to lift heavy boxes, and you cannot do so based on your health, you must disclose honestly in the interview that you cannot meet that requirement. However, you do not need to disclose why you cannot do so.

Morally speaking, Mr. Heywood says, it comes down to a matter of trust. An employer "may feel deceived if [a health condition] is not disclosed in advance, but having said that, there is not much an employer can do about it, and time may heal the wound."

When you are applying for a position, you need to ask yourself, "Do I have the skills, experience and ability to do this job?" If you do, you should apply with confidence.

In a perfect world, we would love to be team players, and share what we see as relevant information to prospective employers. And we would want employers to strip away any emotion or worries they might have, and not discriminate. In real life, things don't always fall into place that way.

So, in your next job interview, know that you are doing the right thing in not discussing your health matters with prospective employers, because you have no moral or legal obligation to do so.

Julie Labrie is the president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions in Toronto.

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