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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will My Atheism Hurt My Career?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I’m a graduate student at a top international relations program, currently searching for internships and soon to be searching for jobs. My problem is this: when an employer searches my full name, the first result they get is my old profile at a social networking site for atheists. I’ve taken the profile down, but have not been fully successful in removing it from Google’s search results. I’ve tried to make my LinkedIn more prominent in the searches, but it’s not showing up so far.

I’ve talked to friends and some have said that if they were an HR and saw that I’d had a presence on such a site, they’d never hire me on the assumption that I was some sort of radical. Do you think that’s true? I could go on and on about how I’m not, how I got valuable leadership experience running a campus atheist group as an undergraduate, how I carefully avoid discussion of religion in professional and personal settings, but that’s not the first thing the HR will see . . . all they’ll see is my name attached to an unpopular and misrepresented social group.

My question, then, is this: is my worry that employers will get a negative impression of me realistic? Is there a risk that this could cost me a job? More generally, how can I discuss the leadership experience I gained when there’s about a 50-50 chance the employer strongly disagrees with the work I gained it doing?

Will My Atheism Hurt My Career?


JoAnna said...

My perspective is that if a company won't hire you solely due to your religious affiliation (or lack thereof), they're probably not worth working for anyway.

fposte said...

It's not just a question of one's religious affiliation, though; it's more insidious than that. The fact that this is a primary thing in a search history may make some people think it's the primary thing in the applicant's life, and that they'd be an employee who proselytizes, which is a tough fit in a workplace no matter what the proselytizing is about. Absent an ability to control the internet, I'd say that making sure the resume reflects broad experience would be helpful in demonstrating that you're well-rounded, and a professional yet warm cover letter can help ensure you're thought of as a human and not a scary cipher. People who'd be genuinely horrified to have an atheist in their midst you can't do much about (beyond legal action, I guess), but those who just don't want to be preached at you can ease the way for.

I've never had any problem in workplaces because of my atheism, but I don't think anybody knew it in advance of meeting and working with me. And I've never worked in really conservative regions, so it's possible it would be different there. But in general, people are less bothered by a characteristic that's part of someone they have a fuller picture of than something that seems to be all they know about that person.

My captcha is, I kid you not, "stspited." St. Spited, the patron saint of atheists?

Another Evil HR Director said...

Is this networking site known to be offensive, or its members known for causing trouble in a community? The reason I ask, is that your membership on such a site would not, in and of itself, turn off a prospetive employer; no more than membership in a church group of some kind if that came up in a search.

I tend to believe if there is any thought at all that your being listed as a member of this site is hurting you professionally, it would be because this group is known for some sort of undesirable and disruptive behavior, rather than it being a site for atheists.

If there are truly any HR professionals out there who have told you they believe you could be excluded from consideration from a job simply because you're an antheist, they are either unaware of employment regulations (and shouldn't therefore be in HR), or are the type to discriminate against people for other reasons (and therefore shouldn't be in HR).

fposte said...

If you read the thread on bnet, you'll see there are several people who would exclude a candidate for being atheist, plus one atheist who would exclude candidates for being a certain religion (there's always equal opportunity for bigotry, I guess). To my horror, they mostly don't seem to see anything wrong with that stand.

We're hiring now, and we have some tasks that may not accord with some people's religious or moral beliefs. So we tell our interviewees about these tasks and ask them if they'll be able to perform them. Even if it were legal, why would we use religion as a dubiously reliable predictor of the answer when we can just get the actual answer, and what difference does the religion make if the answer's what we need?

Suzanne Lucas said...

I've been quite surprised at the number of people at BNET who are admitting that they discriminate on the basis of religion.


I knew it existed, of course, but didn't think people would come out and admit it.