Unpredictable caregiving responsibilities can be challenging enough when you’re in a job you know and like, but what about when you’re ready to make a change? Deciding whether to disclose caregiving responsibilities during your job hunt is ultimately a judgment call with risks on either side. In making your decision, start by considering your current needs. Which of your responsibilities are fixed, flexible, or unknown? And is the condition of the person you’re caring for permanent, progressing, or intermittent? Once you know your needs, you can compare them against job descriptions you’re interested in. Once you’ve found a potential match, educate yourself about the company culture. You’ll want to both understand formal benefits, but also the intangibles, such as how important face time is or how supportive the company is of family needs. Finally, you’ll want to be really clear on your manager’s expectations, because your direct boss will have the biggest impact on your core working experience.
Picking up my phone, I saw the flash of a text from a dear friend. “Mom [is] in terrible shape,” my friend wrote. “She can’t live on her own anymore. I’m prepping downstairs bedroom for her to move in. But I’m in the middle of job interviews — what the heck do I tell them, if anything? So many unknowns. I’m panicking.”
My friend isn’t alone. Nearly three out of four employees have some sort of caregiving responsibility, according to research from Harvard Business School’s Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman, and most worry that this could derail their career prospects.
In an ideal career transition, we hit the ground running in a new role, aiming to acclimate quickly and deliver results. We want to establish trust and a solid professional reputation.
Caregiving responsibilities can be unpredictable. You may not know what you’ll be called upon to do for a loved one or when, so it’s difficult to anticipate the potential impact on your work. This is tough enough when you’re happy in your job, but even harder when you’re looking to make a change.
So, should you disclose caregiving responsibilities to a prospective employer? If so, when? There’s no right or wrong answer. You need to make the best decision for you, based on the particulars of your situation. Based on my experience as an HR executive, hiring manager, and working mom, my advice is to start by gathering some information:
1. Define your current needs.
Map out your caregiving responsibilities and whether each is fixed, flexible, or unknown. For example, you may need to attend fixed weekly medical appointments on Mondays at 3 p.m., but you may have greater flexibility in scheduling other appointments around mandatory work needs.
You’ll also want to consider the situation at hand — is the medical condition of the person you’re caring for permanent, progressing, or intermittent? What is the prognosis and timeframe? One important point to consider if you think you might need to take a leave of absence at some point to fulfill your caregiving duties: Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you need to have worked for your employer for at least 12 months before you’re eligible for the program.
Once you’ve written down your needs, you can compare your responsibilities against the core requirements of jobs you’re interested in to assess a good employment match. For example, a customer-facing retail job with fixed hours or a role requiring frequent travel may not be realistic for your needs.
2. Educate yourself on company culture.
You can tell a lot about culture from how a company describes itself, its values, and its benefits package. Request and carefully review these documents. Look for whether the company offers workplace eldercare or childcare support, such as referral programs, discounted home backup care, paid time off, and/or employee support groups.
You can also tap into your network to speak with someone who’s worked at the company for a while. They can tell you about how much face time is valued, how supportive the company is with regard to family and work/life issues, and what the expectations are about being in the office.
Any intel you can gather on these issues will be extremely helpful in determining your approach. In certain cultures, visibility and face time are key, and you will engender resentment or suffer from proximity bias if you’re not at the right place at the right time. These are important factors to unearth and consider in your search.
3. Understand your manager’s expectations.
While company culture is important, your direct boss will ultimately determine your core working experience, including compensation and advancement opportunities. Asking these questions during your interview can help guide your decision.
- What are my core job requirements?
- How do you measure success? (You’ll want to listen for outcome-based measures as opposed to vague or subjective standards.)
- Is the role remote, hybrid, or on site? Are any future changes expected to that plan?
- Are the hours fixed, or are working hours flexible? Do some members of the team work flexible schedules? (If so, ask for specifics.)
- Are there required staff or company meetings at specific times? If I miss a meeting, are they recorded, or is there a way to catch up?
- How much of my role is autonomous, versus reliant on working with cross-functional teams and peers?
- By which method (e.g. messaging, email, meetings) and when do you want to be updated on the status of my work?
Deciding whether to disclose caregiving responsibilities during your job hunt is ultimately a judgment call. There are risks on either side. Some caretakers may worry that their manager will view them as less hardworking or competent if they disclose. On the other hand, if you decide not to disclose, you might find yourself unduly stressed and worried about your credibility if you have to regularly decline meeting invitations after you accept the job.
If your new boss seems approachable, encourages work autonomy, and is outcome-based in terms of their performance expectations, you are likely well positioned to disclose and have a candid discussion about working out your schedule. I recommend disclosing after you receive an offer.
If you take this route, Erica Frank, a California-based employment counsel and advisor, recommends getting as specific as possible in your conversation. Pose hypothetical scenarios, such as “What happens if you call me at 11 a.m. and I am at the doctor’s office. How is that viewed?” she suggests. You can also share your plans for how you’ll balance your job and caregiving responsibilities.
No one should have to decide between caregiving and a job — but it has to be the right fit for everyone. Truth requires trust, and trust requires truth. Can you trust your employer to trust you to do your job when life comes calling? The demands of caregiving are usually not static — they increase and decrease over our lives. An employer has a great deal to gain by taking the long view, being flexible during cyclical life needs, and earning employee loyalty over the long haul.