31 August 2015

Hiring and firing

A few weeks ago, the BBC held an interesting mental health debate on Victoria Derbyshire's current affairs' programme. This featured a panel of experts alongside a studio audience, who shared their experiences of a wide range of conditions, with additional contributions from viewers via social media.

The broadcaster had commissioned a special survey to inform the discussion and one statistic arising from this was that 56% of employers would prefer not to take on someone with mental health problems. Employers in the UK are prohibited by law from discriminating in this way, but, with a little ingenuity, recruitment decisions can probably be steered in any direction an unscrupulous boss wishes.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
This attitude potentially excludes a large percentage of the working population from employment, given that such conditions affect 1 in 4 people. And it certainly won't help Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to achieve his recently stated aim of getting more disabled people off benefits and back to work, including those with mental health issues.

Recruitment decisions also depend on the honesty of a candidate in completing any monitoring requirements and in answering questions about sickness absence. Many will conclude that it's in their best interests to be, let's say, economical with the truth. Comedian and mental health advocate, Ruby Wax, who participated in the debate, admitted that she wouldn't tell a prospective employer about her problems, were they not already well known.

About 10 years ago, I went through a recruitment process that involved completing a series of psychometric tests ahead of an interview with the managing director, to whom the role reported. During my meeting with him, he suddenly asked 'Do you have OCD?' - presumably my answers had somehow given him a clue. I didn't take the question amiss, as I was aware that he had personal knowledge of the disorder, from his involvement with a related charity. Nevertheless, I recognised that it was a highly inappropriate query in that situation. 

I didn't take the job - for other reasons - but met him again by chance years later, and reminded him of our previous meeting and his question. He immediately looked stricken and said 'I shouldn't have asked that. I'm sorry.' He was right to be dismayed; it's no more acceptable to ask an interviewee about their mental health status than it is to ask them if they plan to have children. 

One of the key factors in employers being reluctant to hire those with mental health issues is the continuing perception that these are something you can, and should, just snap out of. In fact, as Ruby Wax pointed out, a mental illness is also a physical illness, ie a problem with the brain. And you wouldn't expect someone to snap out of a brain tumour, would you?

I'll be taking a closer look at how people view physical and mental illnesses differently in a future post. In the meantime, if you'd like more information about the Equality Act 2010 and pre-employment questions, check out the Rethink Mental Illness website.

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