Working While Positive: People With HIV Share Job Search Strategies

Working While Positive: People With HIV Share Job Search Strategies

The headlines are dire: so many people unemployed, some who've given up looking, and college grads who end up with massive debt and no job in their field of study. So it seems wise for people living with HIV -- especially those without much formal education or who have been out of the work world for a while -- to go job hunting with the right "arrows" to hit a bull's-eye with prospective employers. But what if you don't have the specific qualifications or education they're asking for? turned to people living with HIV, including those responsible for hiring employees, to get some experiences and ideas.

Stigma and Fear, and Fear of Stigma

Many HIV-positive people who aren't out about their illness feel less than confident when it comes to the job market. Earl, who chooses not to go by his real name, has over a decade of experience serving clients at a long-established AIDS service organization (ASO), as well as a thick personnel folder full of letters of gratitude and praise from clients. Pharmaceutical reps and medical providers have told him his experience and knowledge of the disease could easily get him a better-paying job outside the nonprofit sector, but he stays where he is, even though the agency's survival is questionable. He's convinced that without a degree, he just wouldn't be hired. He doesn't have the money to go back to school, and he sure doesn't want to risk his job by working and going to school at the same time, even though that arrangement has been made for other employees. The result? Job-lock -- the traditional kind of staying in a job to keep health insurance, plus the choice to avoid what might come with a new job.

"It's safe," he says with a shrug. "It may not be the greatest place or the best money, but I know my co-workers aren't going to judge me or avoid me because I have AIDS. I know what to expect and I know I can do it."

Earl wouldn't be the first to choose what he knows, unsatisfactory as it may be, over the possible dangers of the unknown in a world where HIV still carries stigma. Luckily for the clients he serves, and for the agency, his fear of the unknown may keep him there -- perhaps until the doors close for good.

Working in the Corporate World

Sal Iacopelli is a senior recruiter of Global Recruiting & Staffing at Navistar International, which, according to its website, "depends on the drive, passion, and ingenuity of our people to deliver the finest trucks, engines, and industry financing on the planet."

It's Iacopelli's drive and ingenuity that finds those people. He works from his home in Chicago, with weekly trips to corporate headquarters in Lisle, Illinois. He's been a contractor with Navistar for over seven years and his job entails recruiting candidates for jobs in lower- to mid-management -- engineers, financial staff, supply chain managers, and others. It's quite a departure from his early acting career. A long-term survivor of HIV and hepatitis C, he also spent time as a project manager at an ASO and is a published author.

Depending on the job, there are often very specific basic educational requirements that are set in stone, in part because Navistar is a government contractor. "I have absolutely no leeway," he says. "For government jobs, everything has to be excruciatingly restrictive."

But in some other instances, there is consideration given for experience, as well as education. For example, a general human relations (HR) position requires either a bachelor's degree plus four years of experience, or no degree but eight years of HR experience.

Some positions -- usually the more technical ones -- require degrees in the field of the job, but for others, a degree in an unrelated field plus experience are enough to meet the requirements.

Use all the tools available for job searching, he advises. The Internet is not the only or the best, but it's necessary, he says: "Career Builder is the site du jour -- go there, sign up and set keywords. But only apply for jobs you're qualified for."

But when it comes to qualifications, Iacopelli looks for potential in unexpected places.

"To me, a good waiter could be a good recruiter or project manager because it's all about multitasking and customer service," he says.

Refreshing Resumes

"It doesn't necessarily have to be just one page," Iacopelli says of resumes. "Brevity is good, but the more experience you have, the longer it can be ... but no longer than three pages!"

He also advises not to bother with a cover letter, unless it's requested. Online applications go into a recruiting database and cover letters have to actually be searched for.

He's a fan of bullet points and encourages people to start with a summary, not "objectives." "I need to know quickly what your skill set is, not what you want from the job. If you get past me, you can talk about that in other interviews."

Should You Disclose Your Status When Job-Seeking?

Just how much should a job seeker say about gaps in employment history? Iacopelli says, "Don't get too personal or detailed. Keep it brief and vague -- 'I took time off to attend to personal/family matters' is enough."

Disclosure about HIV or any other health concern is a big no-no. In most states, it's illegal for the interviewer to ask. Iacopelli says an applicant should never volunteer information.

Criminal records are a different matter. All job offers are contingent upon the applicant passing a background check, and most applications ask, "Have you ever been convicted of a violation of any law or ordinance other than a traffic violation?" A lie will be revealed in the background check, and the applicant won't be hired. Applicants who are honest and disclose it, Iacopelli says, are usually hired.

Be OK With Who You Are

Charlotte Moore, director of programs for Renaissance Social Services, Inc., has gone from working for the phone company while struggling with alcohol and cocaine addiction to following 12 steps to sobriety. After her experience in recovery, she began pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in human development, a certification as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor, a Master of Arts in counseling, and then became a licensed professional counselor. Now she's working on her doctorate in counseling supervision and education. And all of that while working, sometimes two jobs.

As an African-American lesbian, Charlotte has experienced discrimination from many angles. But that has never stopped her, either as a job applicant or an employer.

"When I hire people, I hire with a purpose," she explains. "How is that person going to fit with teammates, but also how are they going to fit with the clients we serve. We ask about backgrounds -- you can't ask specifically, but you can ask open-ended questions that'll get you where you need to be."

"I know what it feels like to have people look at you like you're a piece of trash," she says. "I've been homeless, I've been addicted -- to feel worthy enough to have someone actually hire me or teach me a skill, well, at that time, that was way beyond my dreams."

Moore believes that while life experience may be important, people who haven't had addictions or been homeless can be just as effective as counselors if they're true to who they are, because that's what clients pick up on.

"Be yourself. Be OK with who you are. Be honest about who you are," she says. "I'm a dissertation away from my doctorate and I needed all that to get where I am today, but I also need the experiences of my past to remind me there's a better way and I'm not going back."

Either or Both

It seems clear that a case can be made for balance between education and experience. Your best bet may be to be open to all lessons, no matter the source. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin knew best when he said, "Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other."

Sue Saltmarsh has worked in the HIV/AIDS field for over 20 years, the first 10 as an herbalist and energy therapist at Project Vida, the last six as a writer and copy editor for Positively Aware magazine. She is now a freelance writer and editor and is also able to devote more time to her passion as founder and director of the Drive for Universal Healthcare (DUH).