Should You Ask About Religion?

Factors that can determine if an employee is ethical

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

Some of us at the Kimono struggled with the research presented in Monday’s newsletter.  Could it really be true that religious people are more ethical in the workplace?  For the sake of argument, let’s agree with the researchers and say it makes a difference.  What do you do with that information?  Do you ask employees their religion during the interview process to factor that into your company’s talent acquisition strategy?

Most HR professionals would strongly advise you against asking about religion in the workplace.  In fact, several pundits on LinkedIn would tell you that asking about someone’s religion in a job interview is an “illegal” question.  Let’s be clear, there’s no such thing as an illegal question.  If you are a hiring manager, you can ask anything you want in a job interview.  You can ask about someone’s religion, race, sexual orientation, political views, favorite color, whatever.  (Don’t believe us?  Go ahead and re-read your First Amendment). The interview police will not come and arrest you.  The law doesn’t prohibit you from asking any question; it prohibits you from discriminating based on the answer to certain questions. 

Asking about someone’s religion in an interview is not recommended because it opens the door to potential problems down the road.  Keep in mind, if a job candidate is asked about their religion and the person doesn’t get the job, that’s probably not enough to win a discrimination lawsuit.  The candidate would need more evidence but for most companies, it’s not worth the hassle or the bad PR.

Quick side story: One of us once interviewed for a position a Christian-based healthcare provider.  In the interview, he was asked, “How do you plan on using the lessons of Jesus Christ in your everyday management style?”  Apparently, responding with, “I will only let the team drink bottled water that’s been blessed,” was not the right answer.  By the way, the company has never faced a discrimination suit for asking these questions even if it sounds a little risky.

Is there another way to find this information?  One potential avenue is for employers to use third party recruiters.  These external recruiting agencies often provide a much needed buffer to keep companies out of hot water.  They often use tactics that would be too sensitive to openly discuss within company walls.  For example, before the internet, a recruiter would ask a candidate to send in a headshot with their resume.  Why?  Most likely to view the candidate and guess their ethnicity. Nowadays, they can Google you and find whatever they need by mining your social media accounts. 

Another side story: One of us at the Kimono used to work for a recruiting agency and saw these practices firsthand. The big pharma companies were notorious among third party recruiters.  Pharmaceutical sales rep had to be in shape and attractive.  Ugly candidates were screened out and never made it to an interview.  Even worse, the pharma companies would try to match the candidate to the demographics of the customer base. One hiring manager showed up to a hiring conference and said, “I don’t want to see any white boys in the line-up today.  The position is in Miami so we need a Cuban rep.  No Puerto Ricans or Mexicans either, just find me Cuban candidates.”  The recruiters then screened out the obvious candidates that didn’t fit and gently asked the Hispanic candidates about their family tree. 

If it feels a little slimy to use a third party to do the dirty work, then it probably is.  Our recommendation?  Avoid the risk of asking job candidates about their religion and instead, ask them situational questions that will give you a glimpse of their thought process and character.  Remember, the study was uni-dimensional.  There are many more factors that determine a good employee.  Think about that and don’t worry about which church service they attend.

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Written by Jay


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