Employment, Stigma, and HIV

Have you recently been looking for work and discouraged with your findings (I’d personally invite you to join the club; America’s job market sucks these days!)? In Massachusetts, unemployment has been hovering around 6.0%, with some fluctuation due to seasonal work (http://www.bls.gov/). In many eyes, unemployment at 6.0% is a job well done, something to be proud of. While this may be true for the country as a whole, you might be asking yourself, but why can’t I find a job? Or perhaps, why does my job suck so much? Should I be grateful or can I find something better? With all these quandaries, throwing in things like navigating the disclosure of your HIV status and dealing with HIV related stigma can make job hunting all the more difficult. As if relying on a whim and a prayer was not hokey enough, new employee recruiting techniques will really throw a wrench in your day.

A recent article in TheBody.com by Brooke Davidoff outlined the struggles of a newly diagnosed person looking for employment. Her article articulates the struggle of disclosing your HIV status to an employer versus lying to get a job. It also highlights the stigmatic notion that being HIV positive is a disability. In her article, Davidoff suggests that many employers are now promoting what is called a “Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability,” (which you can find here) a questionnaire that employers ask candidates to fill out with the promise that it will not be used “against them.” And, as you may have guessed, HIV/AIDS is listed as a category of disability. Despite the fact that this lumps HIV positive individuals into categories of “disabled,” this type of form lends itself to the age-old question: do I to lie to a potential employer about my status and have them find out, do I give full disclosure upfront and risk not getting a job, or do I end up getting a job with labels attached to my identity? These are the kinds of questions that employers are supposedly trying to reduce, but failing epically at doing so.

Before I leave you without hope for humanity, society at large, and your future career goals, I’d like to advocate that there are places that fight against HIV stigma within the workplace. Wonderful places, such as Heineken International, promote anti-discrimination and disclosure policies. They state that: “In response to this social stigma, Heineken developed a comprehensive HIV/AIDS non-discrimination policy in 1996. The policy bans discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS in the workplace and the use of HIV testing in pre-employment checks.” Heineken also notes that if employees are laid off, they can still receive free treatment from the company’s clinics.  Such companies are constantly looking to eliminate stigma in the workplace, rid the taboo of being HIV positive, and promote services for those who need it.

In a society where workplaces are so often ruled by policies and bureaucracy, how can we combat stigma in these settings so all people feel safe and included, and promote disclosure of any form as their own personal choice? Promoting chronic illnesses such as HIV as “disabilities” seems very limiting and for many down-right insulting. Instead, leaving behind practices of seemingly-forced disclosure in the workplace may lead to more confidentiality and trust. Disclosure within the workplace should be decided on individual terms, and certainly not something that gets in the way of employment opportunities.

What do you think? Would you claim to be “disabled” for a job, would that be a job worth pursuing? Is there a “right way” to disclosing your status to your employer, if at all?