Should I Mention My Lived Experience in an Interview?

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This is our weekly Q&A in which our team and network share their hard won wisdom to help guide you gently through your social impact career dilemmas. If you like the advice, use it, and if you don’t, just ignore it. After all, we don’t even follow our own advice a lot of the time.


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Question:


‘If the reason you’re passionate about the issue a charity works on is because you’ve lived with it, is it ok to talk about that in the interview? I am thinking about mentioning my mental health issues in an interview to work at a mental health charity.


Our answer-er this week is Laurie, Director of Room for Change and a woman who has interviewed many, many, a person for jobs in charities across her career at organisations including Stonewall, YoungMinds and Victim Support. We’ve asked her to give the point of view of a manager hiring someone.


Answer:


This is SUCH a good question, and an important one and could apply to a ton of issues, as well as of course, to mental health.


So, in summary my answer is going to be yes, it’s definitely ok to talk about your lived experience in the interview and there are some things it is worth considering to help you apply that experience in the best way in the interview context. These are:


Bridging. This is not an official interview technique (or at least not one I have ever been taught) - it is just a term I have just made up to describe something I have seen some people do well in interviews. It’s when people make that link for you between their lived experience and how it adds value to the specific role they are interviewing for. This is really powerful in an interview as it shows they have really taken the time to understand what the role involves and what they can bring to it.


A simple example could be that if the job will involve organising events for people with mental health problems then as someone who has experienced severe anxiety you know the types of things that you would worry about before the event and how having lots of information up front would help manage those worries. You could use this knowledge to plan how early to send out information to event participants and what detail of information to send. It was actually someone with anxiety who taught me to always mention if anyone else at the event would know each other and to explain the dress code. I never would have covered those things as they seem too detailed, but then I wasn’t in the target group for this event, and this person was. People used to actually comment on how useful the event information was. We just wouldn’t have been able to serve the event participants as well without someone in the team with that insider knowledge. Try and find examples like that for the job you’re applying for.


Staying in your comfort zone. If something is emotional for you to speak about or you might feel on the spot if anyone asked about it- which they might if you’ve mentioned it (although this should always be in a respectful and non-probing way) then it might be best not to mention that experience in detail. It’s important you are comfortable or you might sell yourself short by worrying about what you’ve said and then getting distracted from the rest of the interview. If you do decide to share your lived experience, keep it relevant to the interview questions and at a level which shows you can be reflective on it, rather than sharing your (no doubt righteous) rage or upset at length in the interview.


Don’t stress about it after. Whether you do or don’t get the job, it is really, really unlikely to be down to just one moment in which you did or didn’t say something about your lived experience. A lack of lived experience or an overshare of lived experience (I’ve witnessed both) has certainly never been the main reason I’ve not hired someone. Experienced hirers will be considering many factors and won’t just turn you down for one thing so don’t start playing over and over in your head what you did or didn’t say about your lived experience.


And if you’re worried that sharing your lived experience will put someone off hiring you then my personal feeling has been that in a way, it’s kind of a good thing as do you really want to work for an organisation that has an issue with a core part of who you are?


One other thing: my answer here was specifically about sharing mental illness in the context of interviewing for a job at a mental health charity. If you have questions about disclosing your mental health experiences in interviews in general, this is a good article with some stuff to think about.

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