Religion on Display

Recent research found employers are less likely to consider job candidates whose resumes highlighted involvement with religious organizations. Religious affiliations may not necessarily indicate a candidate's ability to do a particular job, but experts suggest it still would be prudent for hiring managers to put such experiences in the proper context.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014
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It's not uncommon for an employee to claim his or her religious beliefs helped land them on the wrong end of an adverse employment action.

In fact, these types of claims have been on the rise for at least a decade, with the number of religious discrimination complaints received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission climbing from 2,532 in the year 2003 to 3,721 in 2013, according to the EEOC.

A new study finds, however, that the potential for religious discrimination exists well before an employee is even hired -- or isn't hired, as it were.   

In the study, two University of Connecticut professors created resumes for four standout -- and purely fictional -- recent college graduates, randomly assigning a religious faith to each job seeker. (A control group of fictitious students' resumes included no mention of religious affiliations.)

Hypothetical job hunter Sara Korvel, for example, held English and finance degrees from UConn, made the dean's list in seven of her eight semesters at the Storrs, Conn.-based university, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa Society, and served as publicity manager for the school's Muslim student group for four years.

The researchers sent 6,400 applications to 1,600 web-posted jobs within 150 miles of Hartford, Conn., setting up eight voicemail boxes and eight email addresses to collect the responses. to Michael Wallace, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and lead study author, he and co-author Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at UConn, anticipated the control group with no expressed religious associations would get the most responses.

And that's precisely what happened. The applicants for the New England-area jobs who disclosed religious affiliations had 19 percent fewer contacts from would-be employers than did the applicants from the non-religious control groups, according to Wallace, who largely attributes these findings to what he calls "the privatization of religion" in America. 

"Americans fully believe in religious diversity and religious freedom," he says. "But at the same time, we shy away from people overtly practicing or displaying their religion."

Incidentally, the findings suggest Muslims experience the most bias. New England employers responded to 57 applicants with no religious identification -- compared to 36 applicants associated with a Muslim group. Wallace and Bright replicated their research for a second study focusing on the South, sending out 3,200 applications to employers within 150 miles of two major Southern cities. These companies responded to 73 applicants indicating no religious attachment, versus 43 applicants who noted an association with a Muslim group.

Fair or unfair, some employers may feel that a job candidate who makes a point of including religious associations on his or her resume may be more likely to discuss and/or display their religious beliefs at work, and subsequently run the risk of clashing with colleagues who don't share those same ideals, says Wallace. 

Tony Campiti, a Dallas-based attorney and partner with Thompson & Knight, agrees with that assessment.

"I think there's a belief among many companies that a job candidate involved [with a religious group] may be more inclined to bring religion to work," says Campiti.

"[That belief] can influence the decision-making process," he continues. "Right or wrong, employers may feel they don't want to be asking for trouble."

Ultimately, however, including experience with a religious group may not increase a candidate's chance of getting a call from a hiring manager, but it shouldn't hurt his or her prospects, either.

"From an employer's standpoint, if you're looking at [this kind of information] on a resume, look at it in context," says Wallace.

For example, a job candidate -- especially a recent college graduate with only a short work history to spotlight -- may include his or her participation in a religious group as a way to demonstrate leadership qualities or the ability to work as part of a team.

"You may look and say, 'This isn't relevant for this job,'" says Wallace. "But that could apply to anything on a resume. We've all seen things on resumes that don't seem relevant. I think employers should try to look at [religious affiliations] as part of the total package.

"Employers see the religious side of it, but a recent graduate wants to show their leadership side," he continues. "My daughter is finishing up college, for instance. And she's very conscious about having a variety of activities to show to employers on her applications; to show that she wasn't just drifting through and getting the necessary grades."

Other extracurricular activities aside, "the resume is not the place to showcase your strongly-held political and religious commitments, unless those commitments are directly relevant to the job," says Gordon Medlock, senior talent management consultant at HRIZONS, a Chicago-based talent management and human-capital management firm.

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"If [a job candidate] happens to be the head of a volunteer organization for an Islamic religious organization, [the applicant] should showcase the skills that go with the role, but shouldn't refer to the specific religious affiliation."

However, some experience that may not seem directly related to the role may still be pertinent, according to Campiti.

"Assuming the employer isn't a religious institution, it depends on the nature of the job," he says. "For example, if the opening is for a supervisor position and the resume shows the candidate held a leadership-type role [with a religious group], then I think that type of experience could be considered job-related."

If such experience has no bearing on the job, however, "listing religious identification shouldn't be viewed as making the applicant any more or less qualified for the position," adds Campiti.

Many employers may even be aware of such a requirement, says Campiti. But that may change soon.

"From a legal standpoint, the job candidate is going to have the burden of proof," he says. "From that perspective, it is difficult to prove you were discriminated against when you don't have all the information that went into you not getting a call about a job. That's one of the reasons why you don't see this type of claim."

That said, "there's no way the EEOC can ignore the findings from this study, which indicate there is some religion-based discrimination going on in the hiring process," according to Campiti.

"Many hiring managers may naively think they're doing the right thing, legally speaking, by not bringing someone in who's actively involved in religion," he says. "They think their employees have the right not to be subjected to others' religious beliefs in the workplace.

"I always advise clients that they may be perfectly right about that, but it still takes a lot of effort, money and time to address a lawsuit that comes out of a religious discrimination claim."


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