Religious Discrimination in Hiring?
1. You contacted CFIC regarding your recent experience when applying for a job at a local food bank — could you give us a bit of background?
I noted an advertisement for a position with the local food bank that I believed myself to be well qualified for. Food security is an area of great interest to me personally. I do volunteer work in the area of poverty reduction. I applied for the position and was selected to complete a lengthy questionnaire as the second step in the screening process. I estimate that completing the questionnaire took in excess of three hours. Following that, I was asked to attend a telephone interview. The interview was lengthy, with many similar questions to those in the questionnaire. A notable exception was, “Before board meetings and many volunteer meetings we say a prayer. Would you be comfortable joining in?”
Following the telephone interview, I was notified that I was no longer being considered for the position. No rationale was given.
2. What was your reaction to discovering the interview question that described the practice of having prayers at the start of the organization’s board meetings and volunteer meetings?
I was very uncomfortable with the question and felt quite demoralized. I was pretty excited about this opportunity and immediately believed that my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) would prevent me from being considered.
3. As a person who identifies as secular/non-religious, how did you respond to this question?
I was so shocked by the question that I tried to find an answer that was truthful, yet might not exclude me from consideration. I indicated that I would be fine with other people praying, but that it would not be a comfortable activity for me to join in. In fact, I would not be OK with a public prayer in advance of a business meeting in which the board was making important decisions about the best way for the food bank to meet the needs of people in its community, nor at a volunteer meeting where I hope people of all denominations would be welcome to contribute. Immediately after the interview, when I had time to process what had happened, I concluded that any answer that did not indicate my support for prayer would exclude me. Why else would the question be asked? I regret that I did not specifically say that I would be uncomfortable.
4. How do you think your response might have affected your chances of being offered a position with the organization?
It is difficult to know whether my other answers would have been sufficient to get me to the next stage of the interview process or to get the position, but I am confident that my negative response screened me out. I can’t imagine any other reason for the question to be asked, other than to ensure that this discriminatory practice was allowed to continue.
5. Do you have any other concerns about how the religious stance that appears to underlie the governing principles of this food bank might affect its operations, including relationships with clients, employees, volunteers, and donors?
I have several concerns related to employment equity and human rights, the gravity of the decisions the board is making, and the impact that this practice has on the people they are serving:
- The question is discriminatory. It serves to ensure that all board members, staff, and volunteers are practicing Christians. For volunteers, who can take their unpaid labour elsewhere, they will simply walk away, depriving the food bank and the people it serves of their support. For paid employees it would require that they lie to get the position and then be perpetually troubled by the regular prayers; or they may fail to obtain employment based on their creed.
- A board of directors has a responsibility to make decisions that best serve their community. Consulting with an imaginary higher power before making decisions is irresponsible, childish, and leads to outcomes that support their personal agenda (Christianity) over the agenda of providing food security for all people in the community.
- The food bank is reliant on community donations and good will. If donors were to discover that the board prayed before deciding how to use the money that was donated, some would stop giving. If someone were to launch a human rights complaint, there would be a significant cost to the organization. One that would impact the people needing the services of the food bank, rather than the directors who instituted this discriminatory practice.
My biggest concern is that the praying prevents the board from being representative of the community it serves. It is self-perpetuating in that no Christians are excluded from positions within the organization. Decisions would have no input from people of other religions or people of no religion. Therefore, while the services may meet the needs of the Christian clientele, they would be unable to imagine the needs of non-Christian patrons.
6. Other than contacting CFIC, have you taken (or are you planning to take) any actions as a result of this experience?
Initially I was concerned about how any action I took might negatively impact the food bank. I did not want to cost them money (because the cost would ultimately reduce service to people who need it) or cause harm to their reputation (again, reducing services). I also could not imagine a circumstance in which any type of employment order would be beneficial to me. I believe that were there to be such an order, the working relationship would be so poisoned as to make it impossible. A CFIC board member suggested that I check the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) website and look into an “educational remedy.” I discovered that the HRTO offers a “Remedy for Future Compliance” with the Code.
This remedy orders that the organization change their practice. I decided to file an application. The applicant is specifically asked what they would like the HRTO to order. I have asked that the board of directors be given training on human rights requirements related to creed, that they be required to create and follow anti-discrimination policies, and that the tribunal check in after a year to be sure that the policies are being adhered to.
7. Do you have any suggestions for others who may encounter a similar situation?
I am concerned that filing this complaint might jeopardize my opportunity for future employment in the community that this food bank is located in. I have decided to act anyway. I hope others might review the human rights code in their province and file a complaint where it is warranted. You should know that in Ontario, the complaint must be filed within one year of the incident.
Thank you for your efforts and for your willingness to discuss this with CFIC. We look forward to hearing more about the results of the Human Rights Code complaint you have filed.
Have you been discriminated against because you are an atheist? Tell us your story in the comments below, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org