Being Honest about My Disability

Posted by: Francesca Di Meglio on April 22, 2009

With the economy in turmoil, many MBA graduates are finding the job search tough going. To give readers some insight into the strategies they’re pursuing and the difficulties they face, BusinessWeek has recruited four out-of-work MBAs to write about their experiences for a new feature called “The Hunt” that will appear periodically on the Getting In blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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By Michael Janger
Ten years ago, I would have been reluctant to bring up my disability in my job search, because I wanted to improve my chances of getting a job offer. Today, because of Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, more and more information about me is out there on the Internet. Potential employers can Google my name and find out I am deaf because I actively volunteer for a major nonprofit organization for the deaf, and also because I have been quoted in books and articles, as well as Web sites that serve the deaf community. Already, right there, the Internet reduces the likelihood that hiring managers will consider me for a job. So, instead of trying to hide my disability when searching for jobs, it is important for me to be upfront in my interviews about what I can and cannot do in the context of my deafness, and communicate with potential employers the value I can deliver for them with my finance and strategy experience, my prior accomplishments, and my diverse skills. I want them to size me up for the person I am, how I can contribute to the company with the skills and expertise I have, and how effectively I can interact with people in the company.

It is a delicate balance for me. On the one hand, I want to tell them how my approach to work is shaped by my disability, but on the other hand, I have to be careful about overselling it to the point where the employer will see me more for my disability than for the accomplishments, experience and skills I bring to the table. All things being equal, I would rather have the employer judge me on my capabilities and past accomplishments, and nothing else.

Being deaf is not, and never should be, an issue in any profession. In some professions that require a high level of communication – which is true of many areas of business and for jobs requiring an MBA – some employers are reluctant to hire a deaf person because, in their minds, the deaf person will not be up to the demands of the job. A good friend of mine who is deaf and has an MBA tried to interview for jobs at major investment banks, and he would often get letters from them saying that he would not be able to perform well because his deafness would limit his contributions. I often run into challenging situations when interviewing for jobs, particularly for roles that require a high degree of customer and client interaction and substantial managerial supervision.

When I graduated from Wharton with my MBA, I tried to hide my deafness as much as possible. It was not because I was insecure about it. I just wanted to improve my chances of lining up interviews and getting job offers. In hindsight, it was not always a good strategy. This approach sometimes resulted in awkward moments at interviews, because the interviewers could not ask me about my deafness out of concern for labor discrimination laws, unless I brought it up. Because I wanted to talk about my skills and accomplishments and nothing else, discussing my disability usually did not come up. If I had been a bit more honest about myself then, maybe I would have gotten better job offers.

Today, with more business experience under my belt, I’m under no illusions that anyone who looks at my resume will take into account my deafness in addition to the accomplishments, skills, and experience I bring to the table. Headhunters and company recruiters who I am in contact with already know about my deafness because of Google. Thus, to sell myself to a potential employer, it helps to be very, very compelling in what I say. It requires tact and imagination. If there is a job that I really, truly want, but I am not sure if the hiring manager is convinced about my ability to do well on the job, then I must sell him hard on my qualifications, and reassure him about any concerns regarding my ability to manage work over the telephone and deliver presentations. What is important is that I let my passion for my work, and my genuine interest in helping the company, show through in my sales pitch to the interviewer. And by being persuasive in my sales pitch, I can effectively demonstrate my communication skills.

When I interviewed for my job with American Express three years ago, I never told the hiring manager beforehand that I was deaf (because I never had a chance – the interview was hastily scheduled). He was a bit challenging to understand. When we started the interview, I had difficulty understanding him, and he was surprised to find out I was deaf. It was tough going initially, but the hiring manager did not pull any punches. He wanted a real interview, and he got it. He threw difficult questions at me and critically analyzed my answers, to see what I was made of. I was focused, stood my ground, and answered his questions as best I could. I was not sure if this interview was going well, so at one point I decided to take a risk and answer from my heart. When he asked me if I could deliver a good presentation (without referring to my deafness – a smart tactic on his part for legal reasons), I knew exactly what he was asking about. I told him a compelling story about chronic stage fright in high school which I experienced because of my deafness, and how I overcame it in college when I spoke before a U.S. Senate committee on a bill supporting Federal access for the disabled. I also referred to my disability when we discussed group meetings and using the telephone. The interview went from the allotted 30 minutes to almost two hours. He gave me a job offer and I ended up working for him at American Express.

Passion for my work, being compelling and persuasive in my delivery, and being true to myself all make a good recipe for a potential job offer. I believe the person who makes the hiring decision will appreciate having someone who is willing to be as honest, forthright, and professional in his job as he was in the interview.

Reader Comments

Francis Ouseph

May 12, 2009 6:49 AM

Nice Article. I liked it.
Thank you for posting it here.

People have eyes but they don't see, people have ears but they won't listen, people have tongues which they hardly rest !


Well an impairment or handicap is is not in what you cannot do but rather in not doing those things that you are capable of, and are supposed to do.

Lynn

August 12, 2010 9:43 AM

Thank you! And congratulations on your accomplishments. I was not hearing impaired when I started my job in 1989, but after a accident 15 years ago, I am now clinically deaf. In succession planning for the top position in the company, I am being told I must attend, participate and talk with people at community functions and, for example, council meetings. I disagree, believing that I can schedule private meetings after the fact for those who want one-on-one time with the COO. In other words, I believe there are other ways to achieve the necessary functions of the position. I wondered if you had suggestions for how I might approach this challenge? Thank you for your inspiration.

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