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Back to Work

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By Alison Knopf

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life and strive to reach their full potential.” Employment

is a fundamental element in the process of achieving full potential. But getting back into the job market presents some tricky questions for the newly sober.

Here are some things everyone reentering the workforce while in recovery should consider:

To Disclose, or not to disclose

One of the biggest questions for job seekers is whether to disclose their recovery status to employers. This is a matter of personal choice, but you should not make it in a vacuum, says Tom Hill, di- rector of programs for Faces and Voices of Recovery. “Don’t make that decision alone,” he tells Renew. “Talk to someone else in recovery or a sponsor. This is a very complex and difficult decision.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), former alcoholics and drug users (and current alcoholics) are protected against discrimination. Disclosing a disability is always a personal choice, says John Darin, president and CEO of NADAP, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps people with substance-abuse disorders, disabilities and other issues find employment. “But if the disability does not impact the duties and responsibilities of the job position, the job seeker does not have to legally disclose their disability, unless an accommodation under the ADA is necessary to perform the functions of the job,” he says.

If you do decide to disclose, you should emphasize your abilities, skills and expertise related to the position, says Darin. You should also “focus on the positive aspects of recovery.”

Despite legal protections, people in recovery can still face stigma, says Darin. “It is best to not share information with potential
or current employers unless your job will be affected by not reporting this information.” That said, Darin also notes that some people have found that confiding in co-workers who may also be in recovery can build support.

Legal Issues

There are bound to be legal issues for some people in recovery, involving drug tests or prior convictions.

When undergoing drug tests, if people are asked to list medications they are taking, they should do so, says Sally Friedman, legal director of the Legal Action Center. “Failure to disclose medications, when asked, could result in job denial, which would be legal. On the other hand,” Friedman adds, “if someone does disclose the medications and then is denied the job, they can argue that the denial violates the Americans with Disabilities Act” and possibly other federal and state laws.

The laws governing what employers may and may not ask about regarding arrests and convictions vary in the U.S. from state to state, but generally, employers may legally ask about criminal convictions, says Friedman. If the application says to “explain”
or “list” the convictions, one can try to avoid flagging “DUI” by recording the penal code provision instead. Or some people write “will explain at interview.”

But at some point, the employer will likely find out through a background check or will ask at the interview, and the applicant should not lie, says Friedman. “If the applicant does lie, the employer may legally decide not to hire the person because of the lie, so it’s best to tell the truth and be prepared to discuss.”

Meetings can help.

When additional assistance is needed for workplace support, a local AA group can be helpful to connect with other employees who have or have not told their employers about being in recovery, says Darin.

Additionally, AA is a supportive environment where people can establish positive contacts for possible future employment opportunities, says Darin. Not only can you share personal experiences and obtain support for reaching and maintaining sobriety, but you can also know the support comes without judgment. “There may be an opportunity to find an employer who would be sympathetic or more understanding to recovery,” says Darin.

It’s important to note that AA doesn’t provide any type of vocational counseling, an anonymous AA spokeswoman told Renew. “We really only do one thing, which is share the AA program with other alcoholics so we can stop drinking,” she says. “What AA is all about is how to stay sober no matter what your employment situation is.

Consider supportive employers.

The best way to find recovery-friendly employers is by networking with business owners, says Darin. But the kind of job you look for should be based on your individual skills, abilities, interests and preferences; regardless of whether you are in recovery.

One job characteristic to be aware of is stress, says Hill. “When people go into treatment or get into recovery from a high level position, the stressful environment needs to be taken into consideration,” he says. “Your overall lifestyle of promoting recovery may not be the same as the corporate culture.”

There is no specific industry best-suited for someone in recovery, says Darin, adding that NADAP “places individuals in jobs that allow them to demonstrate worth and self-confidence.” But in general, people in recovery “tend to do better in positions involving human interaction, such as customer service and food- related positions.”

Writing a Resume

It’s imperative to “individualize” your functional skills in preparing a resumé, particularly when it comes to addressing gaps in employment history. Instead of a timeline-based resumé that draws attention to these gaps, you should instead focus on the different skills, work experiences and qualifications you have for the position you are applying for.

There are some recovery community organizations with employment programs, says Hill. CCAR in Connecticut, ProAct in Pennsylvania and A Safe Haven in Chicago have programs that help people put resumés together, deal with lapses in employment and criminal justice histories, and “learn how to talk about their past in a way that promotes honesty but doesn’t preclude them from getting the job.”

These organizations also have connections with recovery- friendly employers, says Hill.

While laws like the ADA exist to protect individuals with dis- abilities, it is difficult to prove that you didn’t get hired for a job because you said you were in recovery. That’s why the focus should always be on your qualifications, skills and expertise. Being in recovery may make you a better employee, but that’s something for you, and not your employer, to know – at least at the beginning. Maybe one day, your employer will know it, too.

 

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