A day or two later, I received a phone call from the company’s HR department.
“Can you attend a second interview?” they said. “Someone from the HR team really should have been present during your first interview, but unfortunately, they weren’t able to make it. We just need to run through some fairly standard stuff.”
“That’s fine,” I said, feeling a sense of curiosity mixed with a degree of confusion mixed with excitement. “Where do I have to go?”
The answer was that I had to attend one of their branches an hour’s drive away. The first interview had been at the branch that was advertising the vacancy. Just around the corner from where I live, in fact. Less than five minutes walk.
It presented me with a slight difficulty. Although my partner was busting her guts at her own place of work, funds had been running low all week. So I tapped up my Dad and he lent me £20 for petrol in order to make sure I could get to the second interview.
Concerns were raised during that second interview, by people I would have barely seen on a day-to-day basis, that my CV outlined skills and qualifications somewhat more advanced than the position I was applying for. I explained that I hadn’t worked in ten years, partly due to the mental illness I’d disclosed in my previous interview, and partly because I’d had no particular or pressing need to work during that time, functioning, as I was, as a sort of house husband. Starting this way doesn't bother me, I'd said. I need to ease back in sensibly.
“Yeah,” they said. “But you’ve got to understand… your skills don’t go away. No matter how long you’ve been away from them, you pick them straight back up again. It’s like riding a bike. We’re concerned you’ll get bored with a job that is slightly less challenging than one you’re trained to do. We could find ourselves having to recruit again in six months time.”
A valid concern, I thought. And I tried to alleviate their concerns with some diplomatic waffle about how at the moment, I was perfectly happy doing something less challenging, less weighty. Something without the same degree of responsibility for serious decisions which will affect people’s lives for years to come. I repeated the easing back in sensibly thing.
Of course, I wasn’t offered that job. They re-confirmed their concerns and wished me well in my continued job seeking efforts.
Now, this was a real blow. I’d been really excited about the opportunity to work for them. It was a job I really wanted, and really needed. It was within my skills range. It was just around the corner from where I lived. It would have fit perfectly with our domestic routine. And it also offered the potential, should I want it, to re-commence my training exactly where I left off ten years ago.
It felt like a cheat, if I’m honest. A really under-handed cheat. My skills, which formed the justification of their decision not to give me the job, were the very same skills that interested them enough to offer me the first interview. There was never any mention of a possible second interview. I walked away from the first interview not only brimming with excitement because I thought I stood a really good chance, not least because of the fact that no other interviews were going ahead, but because of how incredibly well the interview went and how well I got on with the people interviewing me. But having disclosed my previous experience of mental illness, I suppose the outcome shouldn't have come as the surprise that it did.
The call for a second interview did feel a bit cobbled together, if I’m honest. A bit: “Oh shit, he’s had these problems, we need to raise some ‘valid’ concerns not to give him the job without mentioning his previous illness.”
That’s what it felt like.
And it’s been that way for every job interview I’ve ever attended in the past ten years since giving up work due to mental illness. Back then, I made some very bad decisions. I burned a lot of bridges with previous employers. But I didn’t do that with some rational application of logic and a fully reasonable appreciation of the consequences. I was ill. I was thinking bad thoughts. I was acting very much in terms of self-preservation. Walking away from a job where I was labouring under crippling suicidal depression, it didn’t seem like I had any other choice but to flee that last job and run for the hills.
Those decisions, ten years ago, made under the incredible burden of mental illness, seem set on following me for the rest of my life. It doesn’t seem to matter that for the ten years of my career previously, I had an outstanding relationship with people and an outstanding reputation for what I did. When you mention mental illness, a red flag goes up. A foghorn sounds.
DON’T EMPLOY THIS GUY, the signs seem to blare. HE’S A LIABILITY JUST WAITING TO HAPPEN.
Being told you haven’t got a job for the very reasons you were deemed a viable candidate leaves you questioning the true motives, especially when you politely ask for some further clarification and feedback, and their response says, “No. We gave you our reasons. We have nothing further to add.” Especially when you’ve spoken to one of the people who conducted the first interview who responded to your request for feedback by saying, “Oh yeah, that’s fine, we have people ask for feedback all the time. I’ll get someone to contact you.”
Under all those circumstances – all of them – one can only be left asking questions.
Questions like, “Is the workplace stigma against those with mental health problems very much alive and well?”
The answer, unfortunately, is that I think it very much is.