Study: Putting religion on your résumé hurts your job chances — unless you’re Jewish

It was a big deal on AMC’s “Mad Men” when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hired Michael Ginsberg in season five. Hiring “the Jew,” as Roger Sterling referred to him, was an attempt to update the agency’s image in an era (1966) when those who clung to the notion that business was a WASPy boys’ club were on the wrong side of the generation gap – a potential problem for an ad firm looking to reach young consumers.

“Turns out everybody’s got one now,” Sterling said, referring to Ginsberg.

Turns out, according to a new study, that when you’re Jewish and searching for a job, you’re not just one of the chosen people, you’re one of the more chosen people, at least in the modern American South. The study of religious discrimination in hiring recently published in the journal Social Currents found job applicants whose résumés betrayed a religious affiliation were 26 percent less likely to be contacted by an employer — except for Jewish applicants.

Researchers Michael Wallace, Bradley R.E. Wright and Allan Hyde of the University of Connecticut sent 3,200 fake applications to 800 jobs within 150 miles of two major Southern cities through a popular employment Web site. Each employer got four résumés with comparable job qualifications. The only thing that set the fake job candidates apart was whether their résumés mentioned involvement with a religious group — such as membership in the Muslim Student Association or Hillel House, a Jewish organization.

Résumés for the control group indicated no religious affiliation. The others indicated the applicant was atheist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, pagan, Muslim or a made-up religion called “Wallonian.”

Employers preferred the control group. This confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that employers would be put off by overt statements of religious identity. Even in the South, which is more religious than any other part of the country, it’s possible that employers would view overt religious expression as potentially offensive to clients and co-workers.

Muslims were least likely to be contacted by employers, receiving 38 percent fewer e-mails and 54 percent fewer phone calls than the control group. Atheists and pagans were also unpopular and, to a lesser extent, Wallonians and Catholics. Evangelicals fared about the same as the control group.

“Only Jews escaped totally unscathed,” researchers said, reporting “no statistically significant evidence of discrimination against this group across all eight indicators in the study.” In fact, researchers found that some employers seemed to favor Jewish applicants, as they were more likely than any other religious group to get an early or exclusive response from an employer.

So what gives? The explanation that researchers found most convincing is that people are partial to those who are culturally similar to themselves. That would explain why groups least similar to the culturally dominant evangelicals – atheists, Muslims, pagans and Wallonians – faced the most discrimination. Catholics, while Christian, are a small minority in the South and are not considered true Christians by many evangelicals, one explanation for their unpopularity. 

Jews, on the other hand, do not seem so different to Southerners, the study suggests.

“Jews and especially the Jewish state of Israel, feature prominently in evangelical Christian theology; in fact evangelicals express stronger support for Israel than any other ethnic or religious group except Jews themselves,” the researchers noted. Another key fact: Jews are barely 1 percent of the Southern population and have “more successfully assimilated into mainstream culture than Jews in other regions,” the researchers observed. Unlike their Northern counterparts, Southern Jews did not form ethnic enclaves.

For Ginsberg, his faith was a novelty that heightened his appeal, while Southern Jews may be appealing in part because they blend in.

This study replicates an earlier study of employers in New England. “Overall, while there is evidence of discrimination in New England, with the exception of Muslims, it is much less pronounced than it is in the South,” the researchers wrote. “This suggests, ironically, that religious discrimination in hiring is most prevalent in regions of the country where religion is most passionately practiced.”

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.

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