Being Secular in the South: The Job Interview

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by employers based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This includes terminating an employee and refusing to hire a qualified candidate; it is extended to include employees or candidates by association. There is an exemption for religious organizations under Section 702.

Considering it is now 2017 and the Civil Rights Act is fifty-three years old, one would assume all established businesses would be in compliance. Assuming this would be wrong.

I recently applied for a position that I was well qualified for. I made it through the initial application cut, the first interview (via phone) as a top-ten candidate, and finally was among the top-three candidates. I was asked to interview with three managers, simultaneously. Things were going great! The human resources manager and I were also communicating regularly, and I was excited.

We were twenty minutes into my final interview, and things seemed to be going well. I then experienced the most horrendous five minutes ever in an interview. “If you don’t believe in prayer, the flag, or the Pledge of Allegiance, this isn’t the company for you,” the HR manager said. “Our motto is essentially ‘God, Family, Work (although the order had to be verified and corrected by another manager). This person continued by saying they company would not change to benefit different beliefs. “Our company president is a veteran, and these things are important.” I interrupted the manager and stated, “You do realize ALL of this is illegal, right?” They simply brushed this aside, saying they understood they could not discriminate once someone was hired. I reminded them that refusing to employ a qualified candidate based on religious beliefs is also discrimination and illegal.

I schooled them that atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists were not the only groups that might object to the company’s policy of group prayer. Certain Christian sects would object, not to mention any other theist who isn’t Christian. I also added that there are many reasons someone may choose not to recite or stand for the pledge of allegiance. While not directly protected by the Civil Rights Act, any refusal to stand for the flag or recite the pledge based on religious reasons is protected. Quite frankly, refusing based on race, national origin, sex, or creed is acceptable as well.

My heart was racing and my face was red. This issue makes me very angry. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up, and I recognize this. In a world where the 1 percent rules and the middle class is shrinking, finding a well-paying job is difficult and motivation enough to stay below the radar.

While an interviewer is allowed to evaluate not only your skills, but your ability to fit in with the team they have established, there are certain things they are not allowed to ask. Questions about religion or personal politics are inappropriate and open up a series of questions that put nonessential, inconsequential attributes on the table.

It’s disconcerting that some companies feel they are entitled to bypass federal law. Sure, an EEOC complaint can be filed, and an attorney can be contacted, but it’s difficult to prove you were denied employment based on the situation described above.

I was denied the position. I was well qualified, had excellent references, and an impressive resume. Will I file an EEOC complaint? More than likely. Will they be found to have discriminated against me? It’s not likely, as an internal candidate got the position. But I hope they’ll think twice before asking inappropriate questions again.