“Matt: I need some advice — in a recent interview, I was asked to talk about the reason I went from one job to another a while back in my career, and the honest answer is that I prayed on it and God made it clear to me that I should make the move.  Since I’ve found Seattle to be an incredibly secular town, however, I’m hesitant to engage in full disclosure around this issue.  How would you suggest I handle things?”

This question (more or less — I paraphrased from memory) was recently asked of me by a participant in one of my job search networking events.  And while it’s obviously a sensitive topic in certain respects, I thought the question might be a worthwhile one to address here on my blog.  So let’s live dangerously and talk about it.  Over the years, I’ve definitely come across quite a few job seekers who were struggling over how best to talk about their faith during their job search, especially in a part of the country (the Pacific NW) that is far less religious, at least in an organized sense, than most other states.

So right out of the gate, let’s first acknowledge the fact that employers cannot legally ask you direct questions about religion on a job application or during the interview process.  There may possibly be some minor exceptions to this rule, and if so, only an experienced employment attorney could tell us for sure — but by and large, it’s safe to assume that you won’t be asked any point-blank questions about religion by an employer.  Should this happen, in an egregious way, it might be wise to lawyer up — since you’ve probably got quite a case on your hands!  But in general, the question of faith in the workplace seems to revolve around a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy where companies don’t ask about the subject and candidates aren’t the slightest bit obligated to discuss it.  So should you choose to keep your faith private and simply provide a few “politically correct” answers when needed (e.g. “I took that other job after carefully analyzing my career goals and objectives…”) during the interview process, to address certain issues, that’s one way to handle things.

Another client of mine, a person of strong faith, suggests that avid believers might also try to “translate” their reasons behind various decisions into language that their secular counterparts might better be able to relate to and understand.  For example, instead of saying something like “God led me to take the other position” you could phrase your answer as “I did some soul-searching and in my heart, I just knew the other job would be a better fit.” or “I felt a strong calling to the other assignment that I just couldn’t resist.”  This was a good suggestion, I thought, and it sounded as if the person offering it had used this approach successfully during his own search.

Of course, we could also be really radical and consider the possibility of actually telling the truth in these kinds of situations and talking about God, faith, and religion in an open and honest way.  Speaking for myself, for example, as somebody who doesn’t come from a formal religious tradition, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if I asked somebody a question like the one above and they simply told me, straight out, that they made the decision based on prayer or based on certain tenets of their personal faith– even if that wouldn’t be the approach I’d use, personally, to sort out such situations.  In some cases, I’ll admit, my sense is that individuals of faith are perhaps more worried about this issue than they need to be — and that any negative reactions to their responses might be less due to the facts of the matter, themselves, and more due to the candidate’s underlying anxieties around the issue or an awkward attempt (or two) to dance around it.   So if you haven’t tried providing a short, straightforward answer to this kind of question in the past, disclosing the role that faith played in the process, you might be surprised to discover the interviewer doesn’t even bat an eye — and that the discussion just moves on to the next issue at hand.  I can’t promise this, of course, but my gut tells me this would be the reaction of most reasonable people, whether secular or not.

And yet, let’s be realistic.  There definitely is a point where being TOO candid about your faith could do damage to your candidacy or hurt your chances of landing a particular position — especially when interviewing for a private-sector assignment, versus a role with a faith-based institution.  So to somebody like my initial questioner, who was seeking to strike the right balance in these situations, I’d mention a few things it might be smart to avoid if you don’t want to cross the line into more risky territory:

1) Avoid raising the faith issue proactively; only bring the subject up in response to a relevant (and legal) question where your beliefs would be an integral part of your answer you don’t want to leave out.

2) Don’t ask the interviewer back about their particular beliefs, faith, or religion; if they choose to share this information voluntarily, that’s their decision, but you shouldn’t try to draw it out of them.

3) Don’t delve into specific details about your religious practices; keep the discussion at a high level and move on, simply because such details (and any other personal matters) are usually not relevant in any direct way to the hiring conversation.

4) Avoid any suggestion that you might proselytize about your faith on the job; I suspect that the greatest fear secular employers have about religion in the workplace is that employees will consciously try to convert their colleagues on company time, leading to a lack of productivity and/or complaints from other workers.  Such behavior is no more appropriate than if an atheist or person of agnostic persuasion engaged in the same activities.

5) Be careful about implying that you leave most (or all) of your decisions completely in the hands of a higher power; while there are certainly many forms of prayer and ways one might tap into divine inspiration, it would obviously be a tad risky to suggest to a (secular) interviewer that you are planning to let God pick the vendors or author the company’s marketing plan!

In closing, religion is an extremely complex and multi-faceted topic, and one’s faith can play a great many different roles in making career choices and in the successful pursuit of new employment.  My above words are therefore designed to explore just one small area of the process where faith and job hunting might potentially intersect — based on the specific question raised by a client — and to give people a few different alternatives to consider in these situations.  As always, I’d welcome further comments and input on this seldom-discussed aspect of the transition process, if you have some to share!