2018 Update: We still think this is a fascinating discussion on how NOT to negotiate for job accommodations for severe allergies — you may also want to check out our most recent advice on negotiating a salary and other benefits.
How — and when — should you tell employers about your requirements for an allergy-friendly office? In general how should you negotiate for job accommodations for severe allergies? Reader J wonders:
After reading your latest article on handling frequent doctors’ appointments, I found the courage to write you. I do suffer from severe allergies (foods and aerosols). I have graduated from university (physics), some work experience (energy business) and added up some economics studies, because I was unsure about being able to handle a “normal” office job. By now, I believe more in myself and am searching for a job (consulting/energy), but I will have to tell my future employer about my limits: 1) The rooms in which I work must be free of plants (important!). 2) I might have problems working “on schedule” in August and September. (In our climate here I have been struggling with asthma attacks, circulation problems, and developing new allergies for the last 5 years.) 3) The office should be mostly fragrance-free. These are the “basic conditions” about which I plan to inform any prospective employer in the second interview. How do I best do it without kicking myself out of the game immediately?
Hmmmn. First, J, I’m sorry to hear that you have such severe allergies! I’m not sure that arriving with a list of demands is the best way to go about this, but I’m curious to hear what readers say. The whole letter reminds me a bit of the recent news story about the female academic who had an offer rejected because she was too “demanding” in her requests while negotiating. That’s one way to do it — give your employer a list of things you’d like granted after you have the offer in hand and are negotiating. But a few notes about your situation, which may look a bit like a lesson in how NOT to negotiate for job accommodations:
- Know your rights. You may want to consult with an employment lawyer before even starting the process so you know what your rights are going into the situation. This area of law is still in flux and may vary by state — a federal court in Iowa just held that severe allergies may be covered under the American with Disabilities Act. This Department of Labor FAQ sheet on disabled rights may also be helpful to you and inform how you proceed. If your allergy is severe enough that you think you’ll be covered under the law, you may act differently than if, after researching it, you don’t think you’ll be covered. You may also want to get familiar with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
- Don’t get too “grabby” early on in the interview process. You mention telling your prospective employer in your second interview about the “basic conditions” you require. I’m afraid you will kick yourself out of the game immediately if you do that. I would wait until you have an offer before you make any demands.
- Assess what you can without asking directly. For example, asking to see the place where you would be working is a reasonable request, and one that would allow you to see if there are plants there, how many people are in the space immediately around you, and so forth.
- Rephrase the conversation in your head to more reasonable (and regular) negotiation topics. For example: extra vacation time, extra sick days, or flexible working conditions would all address your second point about August and September being horrible for you. On the other hand, asking for a “pass” for 1/6th of the year is probably not going to serve you that well.
- Realize that not everything has to be “disclosed” or negotiated. You note that you MIGHT have problems working on schedule — I’m curious how many people would agree that you should disclose that. When we’ve talked about this in situations in the past — for example, women interviewing while pregnant, or expecting/trying to get pregnant soon — they might feel obligated to disclose that they may be too sick or exhausted from the pregnancy to work normal hours. The common wisdom that I’ve seen — and I’ll pass to you — is to see how it goes, and deal with the problem when it ACTUALLY happens. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t. For my $.02, I’d negotiate for flexible working conditions and/or more sick days or vacation days, but I’d keep it close to my chest as to WHY I’m negotiating.
- Finally: focus on what your employers can actually grant you. Your third point — a fragrance-free office — may be very hard for an employer to grant. Asking them to circulate a department-wide memo (or a memo targeted to the group of people working in your closest physical vicinity) sounds like a better negotiating request in my mind. In the comments on our post about perfume at the office there was some discussion about perfume sensitivity and how to deal with it at work, so you might find some useful tips there.
Readers with severe allergies or other environmental sensitivities — do you approach your situation as a disability? What kind of accommodations have you asked for and received? In general do you have any tips for Reader J on how to negotiate — or how NOT to negotiate for job accommodations for severe allergies?