Will My Atheism Hurt My Career

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 7:05 AM EDT

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?

Ahh, excellent question. You are not the only one who faces such a dilemma. Gallup is telling me that in a 2010 pol 39% of Americans attended some sort of church service in the past 7 days, considerably more than that (54%) say religion is very important. Contrast that with the 6% who don't believe in God or a Universal Spirit. You're definitely in the minority, so it makes total sense that you'd join a social networking group for people who believe (or rather don't believe) as you do.

Of course, I'm tempted to say, as someone with a master's degree in Political Science, that your bigger fear should be that a degree in International Relations will result in a lot of people saying, "How interesting!" but not hiring you.

First off, making your LinkedIn profile more prominent is a good start. That's good advice for everyone, whether or not they have info showing up in an unpopular area. You want to control the information about yourself as much as possible. After all, job hunting is all about marketing yourself.

If you want to further distance yourself from the social networking site you can do a simple name change. I'm not talking about a legal one, but rather, if your name on the site is Steve Jones make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile both say Steven Randolph Jones. Then, they won't be sure if you're the same person.

But, atheism isn't the only unpopular thing people have to deal with. There are tons of organizations that can be viewed either positively or negatively (and sometimes with super strong opinions) by different people. It's one thing to leave a student organization off your resume, but what if you worked for American Atheists for 5 years? It's not like you could just leave that off your resume, or put "Secret, unpopluar organization" as your employer. (Although, it would amuse me to see that.)

So, what would I do if I were you? Well, to be honest, I'm a member of a minority religious group myself, and I graduated from a religious university, Brigham Young University. Has this ever prevented me from getting a job? Well, I don't know, as no one is stupid enough to call me up and say, "You know, your resume looks great and all, but we see you're a Mormon, so no job for you!" Likewise, you'll probably never know if your status hurts you.

It's just as illegal for them to discriminate against me for my religion as it is to discriminate against you for your lack thereof. But, it's nearly impossible to prove a "failure to hire" lawsuit. After all, there are a million legal reasons not to hire any particular person.

But, if they are going to find out anyway, I would go ahead and be proud of the work you've done. Yes, normally I say leave things off your resume that indicate your religion, sexual orientation or national origin, but if your actual relevant experience was in one of these campus organizations, then I would include it.

I'd rather see a resume that shows leadership in an "unpopular" group than a resume without any leadership experience. This, of course, is for jobs straight out of college. In 10 years, this experience will be completely irrelevant. Treat it like you would another job. Like so:

President, Campus Atheists, 2009-2011 

  • Increased membership from 19 (2009) to 56 (today) 
  • Managed $15,000 budget
  • Blah, blah, blah

What you don't want is

President, Campus Atheists, 2009-2011

  • Protested against religious speakers on campus
  • Advocated removal of university funding for Protestant Student Organization
  • Blah, blah, blah

The former will result in people saying, "That's pretty impressive, that he was able to more than double membership" while the latter will say make someone (religious or non) wonder if you'll be the person who complains about Ellen who keeps a Crucifix on her desk. They like Ellen and her work and don't want to see her tormented.

Now, I'm assuming that nothing truly horrible is going to show up on this social networking site. If I googled your name and found out that you were standing outside a Catholic Mass taunting people as they came out, then you're far more likely to end up in a no pile. Not because you're an atheist, but because you're mean.

In my experience, most people are tolerant of others' beliefs. Yes, I have had a supervisor tell me I was going to hell, to which I cheerily responded, "Excellent, I suppose I'll see you there!" and that pretty much shut him up. There will be people who will not hire you if they find out your beliefs. That's unfortunately true.

However, I think most people will ignore the old social networking site or take it no more seriously than they take Facebook. Hopefully, you won't face any problems and good luck in your job search.

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