how to ask your interviewer for a flexible schedule

A reader writes:

I’m in the process of looking for a new job and I’ve run into a bit of an issue. My young son is disabled and requires a lot of doctor and therapy appointments. My husband and I split this up as much as possible and always try to keep our time scheduled in the most effective way, but it is not unusual to have to leave work for 2-3 appointments a month. It is very important that I work for an employer with flexible time-off and/or flexible scheduling.

I don’t want to set myself up for failure or find myself in a situation where, while everything looked great on paper, my coworkers or boss are annoyed by my situation. What is the best way to deal with this? Is it appropriate to bring up my family situation in the later stages of the interview process? Is there a way to find out about this aspect of the company culture without scaring potential bosses away thinking I’m going to be chronically absent?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Beancounter in Texas*

    Thank you for digging up the flexible schedule question from the archive. So timely for me!

  2. Employment Lawyer*

    ” Is there a way to find out about this aspect of the company culture without scaring potential bosses away thinking I’m going to be chronically absent?”

    Would it help to know the law is mostly on your side?

    In many cases, caring for a disabled child–including needed medical appointments–is a covered disability. Once you meet the qualifications for FMLA and/or your equivalent state law(s), it’s covered.

    So it may be worth talking to an employment lawyer ahead of time. It’s always good to know what your rights are, and how to document medical-condition discrimination.

    As a single example: Massachusetts allows employers to wrap sick time and vacation time into a single package. But Mass. has very loose rules on sick time, which permit you to take it without notice, in one hour blocks, without much documentation, for family members. So depending on the vacation policies you might be able to simply take the job without saying a thing and you’d be able to do what you needed.

    Communication is always best and in a perfect world your employer would be A-OK with it. But the world is not perfect and you should know what your rights are just in case.

    1. Kyrielle*

      State laws might be handy. FMLA not only is dependent on size of employer, you have to be there 12 months before it takes effect. For an ongoing issue already in place when you take the job, it’s not going to help you. (And if it’s going to cause frustration to your manager, it’s still going to be a problem for how you’re perceived.)

  3. J.B.*

    #4 is weird. I certainly wouldn’t refuse to provide a copy but would talk with my boss first about what it said. I would explain that I filled it out as a coworker, was positive/neutral/whatever, and then ask if boss still wanted it. I can see a boss being a bit squeamish if you filled out the form, but not trusting you about what you said isn’t a great sign.

  4. HigherEdHR*

    I’m trying to convince the administration to institute a flexible schedule program at the university (for staff). Wish me luck!

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      I wish you were HR at my university! I would LOVE to have a flexible schedule. Especially when overtime laws kick in, I would even prefer flexing my hours over getting overtime pay.

  5. Rachel B*

    I find the answer to #1 a bit problematic. Don’t offers usually come in the form of an e-mail or a letter sent in the mail? There might not be an opportunity to bring up the situation with the appointments. Asking for a phone call with the hiring manager to discuss this would be awkward and might make it seem more of a big deal than it actually is. There’d have to be a way to work it into the conversation naturally and usually the only time for that is at the end of an interview when you’re allowed to ask questions.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Typically via phone, although details are then often sent in writing, of course. Places that makes initial offers via phone or mail are typically highly rigid/bureaucratic; it happens, but it’s not the norm.

    2. OhNo*

      I’ll admit I haven’t been in the working world for as long as others, but I have never gotten first notice of an offer by mail or email. Every job I’ve ever gotten, the hiring manager called me to offer the job, and only then followed up with a print/emailed offer of some kind.

      Even if they did make contact in text first, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to call at that point. What if you have questions about the benefits, or the PTO policy, or want to clarify something in the offer letter? I can’t imagine they would find it weird to field calls like that.

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      Every single offer I’ve gotten has been by phone.

      Usually works like this (in my limited experience):
      1. Employer asks me for references.
      2. A little while later (either a couple of days or over a week), the employer emails or texts me about a good time to talk with me.
      3. We arrange a time. Employer calls me.
      4. Employer makes the offer. We discuss terms / negotiate / I ask for time to think about it.
      5. Employer sends me details in writing.
      6. I sign the contract and send it back.

      1. Rachel B*

        That’s reassuring. Thanks, ya’all. The phone call would definitely be a good time to work in any lingering questions about benefits, working conditions, etc. Although you may just end up getting referred to another person. For example, if it’s HR making the offer call, they may refer you to the hiring manager, and vice versa.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Yeah, I’ve had that happen, too (not often). The hiring manager doesn’t always know what’s possible. I do think it’s preferable for the hiring manager to reach out to HR to get an answer rather than simply giving you HR’s contact info (until the actual hire and on-boarding happens).

    4. Kristine*

      Rachel B, I was thinking the same thing! I’ve worked for 3 different companies and all have offered me the job via email. Apparently phone is more common but I never would have known that. Shows why I read AAM.

  6. Newby*

    I feel like the best way to deal with #1 varies dramatically depending on how badly you need the job and how marketable you are in general. I need a flexible schedule due to chronic health problems and have found that for me it works best to bring it up early and give specifics about what type of schedule I can commit to. Luckily I work in a field where a flexible schedule is normal. For me, making sure that no one would resent the schedule I need was more important than potentially scaring an employer away. It is a risk and would not work if you really need the job.

  7. hbc*

    #4 could definitely happen at my office. Be on the lookout for a capricious owner–not fully micromanaging to the point that the employees would know they’d have to get his stamp of approval, but randomly deciding to insert himself into things he’s never shown an interest in before.

    It’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but if you thrive on consistency and predictability, it can be pretty stressful.

  8. disconnect*

    #3: the best way to handle this is to allow them enough rope with which to hang themselves. In this case, give them enough information to get started, answer what questions you can, and when the heavy shite starts raining down, shrug your shoulders and say, “A lot of what you’re asking relies on judgement and best practices, which I’m really not sure how to teach. But you have the tools necessary to make your creativity come through, so go for it!” Say it sincerely with a smile and without an ounce of grar. Because either you’re wrong and it’s super easy and a caveman can do it, or you’re not wrong and it’s a tough learn. Either way, you’re best served by being polite and helpful and setting boundaries on exactly how far you’re willing to carry the other party.

  9. SirTechSpec*

    For #2, there could be some additional nuances depending on your office culture. I know that in many technology-centric offices, respect is the currency of the realm. In extreme examples, that can result in pretty much dividing people into two piles – people who are usually right and make the job easier, and people who are often wrong and make the job harder, regardless of how likable they are otherwise.

    You’ve said your boss was an excellent mentor to you, and I’m sure that’s true. But if he had a reputation for making technical, process, or management mistakes that created more work for others, people may be trying to get a feel for whether you recognize that or are likely to make similar mistakes. FWIW, I don’t get the sense from your letter that this is necessarily the case – it seems equally likely that people just didn’t like him for whatever reason – but it’s a possibility worth taking into account.

    It’s tricky, but you may be able to cover all your bases with careful phrasing – something like “Ah, yeah, I much prefer the way we’re handling X now. But Bob’s a good guy and I’d like to maintain my positive relationship with him, so let’s not dwell on that. [+ subject change]” Most people will be satisfied with that, and hopefully over time they’ll trust you on your own merits.

    P.S. I realize the OP is probably long gone, but I’m curious to see if others have encountered similar dynamics and what the result has been.

      1. Tau*

        ………….so I started as a software dev at Company X six months ago and so many of the weird things that have confused me about the department culture and how we work make so much more sense now.

  10. Ife*

    For #1, is the request about time off for appointments intentionally vague? I guess I was expecting to see some reference to why there are so many appointments each month, since they seems pretty frequent*. Something like, “My son has 2-3 medical appointments each month, and two are usually on short notice,” or something like that. Or is that crossing the line in the same way that mentioning your kids or spouse during the interview is crossing the line?

    * I realize the employer doesn’t strictly have a right to know, but it seems like being vague could cause a hesitant/annoyed reaction when the appointments are that frequent.

  11. AcademiaNut*

    A couple of other things I can think of to consider. Larger employers will offer more required accommodation (in the US) via FMLA, although I think you have to have been working there a while first. But in general, a large employer will have more resources to handle unexpected absences than if you’re one of three employees that they are depending to be there all the time. It will also depend a lot on the type of role – a job that doesn’t require constant coverage is a lot easier to be flexible on, where if you’re gone for part of a day for a doctor’s appointment, you can make it up later without inconveniencing people much. If you’re in a job that requires coverage, and someone has to be pulled in last minute to cover you, ill-will can build up even with the most sympathetic coworkers (there was a long thread on this a while ago, with a small department and multiple employees on intermittent FMLA).

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