May 23, 2011

Entering the Job Market With a Background in Atheist Activism

JobsOne of my favorite things about Friendly Atheist is how Hemant tackles tough questions asked by his readers in an effort to help them. In a recent post, he addressed a question from a reader hoping to land a job as a teacher who was worried about how to handle her involvement in secular groups. I agree with almost everything he suggested, especially the part about scrubbing one's resume clean of any mention of atheist activism. In fact, all I really want to add is the perspective of one who is "surrounded by die-hard conservatives."

Hemant was absolutely right to suggest removing any mention of atheist activism from one's resume. Even if doing so shortens it considerably, I would also encourage the applicant to do this. School districts are going to be extremely reluctant to hire a teacher with anything "controversial" in their background.

Unfortunately, Hemant is also right to point out the double standard:
I knew that if I had volunteered with my church, or gone on a mission trip, or helped lead a national Christian organization, those things would’ve helped me secure the job. Instead, I had to play it safe.
How might things be different when the job search is conducted in a deeply conservative area where fundamentalist Christianity is the norm? For starters, it will be much more likely that illegal questions about religion are asked during the interviews. Sadly, I have seen this happen in faculty and staff interviews at a state university. Sometimes they have been blatant (e.g., "Maybe we can help you find a church. Where do you go to church?"). Other times they have been more subtle (e.g., the interviewer disclosing that they go to church or are Christian and then closely monitoring how the interviewee reacts).

In my experience, an applicant disclosing atheism during the hiring process would be fatal to his or her candidacy. And I'd encourage applicants to think far beyond the contents of their resume. It is increasingly common for employers to Google the applicant's name. What do your Facebook and Twitter accounts say about you?

The only place where my opinion differs a bit from Hemant's relates to what he said about how to handle one's atheism after being hired. Many employers have policies in place prohibiting conduct (including online behavior) that could make an employer look bad. Depending on where you live and the nature of your employer, there is great variability in how this can be interpreted. For example, I have little doubt that my experience at a public university in Mississippi would be different if I blogged under my real name than the experience of PZ Myers doing it in Minnesota.

My advice to those looking for jobs and hoping to maintain them in extremely conservative areas is to err on the side of caution. There are plenty of ways a workplace can be made miserable that don't necessarily involve being fired. And how many of us have the time and money to go through the courts to address every such wrong?

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