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Maybe There Are Some Lights You Should Hide Under a Bushel -- At Least While You're on the Job Hunt

Posted December 7, 2009

Topics: Author Tips

If your political beliefs aren't necessary for the job you want, keep them off your resume.

I am a huge fan of a certain blogger in my professional space (let’s call her Anne). I follow her regularly, even responding to her Facebook posts every now and then. Even though we haven’t met in person, I think it’s safe to say we’re friends – at least warm acquaintances – and the face-to-face thing is just a technicality that will be rectified at some conference one of these days. I like her because she’s smart, funny, brave and isn’t afraid to push a comfort zone button every now and then. We have the same point of view on many things. But we’re decidedly different when it comes to politics.

In the months that I’ve been following her, I’ve noticed that I disagree with her every now and then. But I would bet that she probably didn’t notice our differences, at least at first – primarily because I determinedly keep my yap shut when it comes to politics.  (Her blog isn’t about politics anyway, so why raise a stink when it would be off-topic?)  One day, however, one of her other followers (let’s call her Lisa) raised an informed opinion about the desirability of government-sponsored health care. In a twinkling, a third follower (let’s call him Tom) posted a vicious response to Lisa’s comment, launching a full-fledged personal attack on her based on all sorts of false assumptions. Tom attacked her for being a pampered, privileged Marie Antoinette type, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Of course, I got into the fray. Rolled up my sleeves, girded my cyber loins and entered the battle like it was one of those old-fashioned cartoon dust clouds with boots and fists and stars and hash-marks exploding out of it.  And I was Pop-eye. I wasn’t defending Lisa’s politics (although I was inclined to take her side there too) so much as I was defending her right to express her opinion without being personally attacked.  Being a writer, I tend to take the whole freedom of speech thing pretty seriously.  (Yes, yes, I know the First Amendment is designed to prevent the government from imposing restrictions on speech. But when society allows individuals to shut freedom of expression down, especially so viciously, the resulting chilling effect on free exchange of ideas will threaten democracy much more quickly and perniciously than any overt government ban.)

Anne, to her credit, kindly reminded Tom to be nice to Lisa. But by that time Tom was already out of control. And he kept on flailing. (Between you and me, the apology that begins with, “I’m sorry but you…” ain’t no apology. It’s just Round Two. Ding!) So after a few rounds of heated conversation, Anne wisely took this particular thread down (which is basically telling all of us to go to our rooms for a time out).  The upshot of this whole encounter is that Lisa and I have become friends – although we haven’t met in person yet either.

So, that takes us to the question of when do you do the full Monty in terms of letting people know what you care about and believe.  And when do you choose to keep your mouth shut? Only you can answer that question for yourself. But I’m reminded of this problem in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine where the ethics columnist advises a recruiter who is disinclined to offer summer internships to law students whose activities show a political viewpoint that isn’t hers personally. According to the update, he or she (who knows? It was one of those “name withheld” jobs, and for good reason, I might add) decided to eliminate from consideration all those whose resumes reflected a decidedly conservative bent.  Not because this particular law firm was committed solely to liberal causes but because he/she was personally convinced that these applicants would be unpleasant to work with based on their conservative point of view.

Naturally, the columnist, Randy Cohen, advised Name Withheld that he/she couldn’t discriminate on the basis of political affiliation.  He said, “You must abandon your mini-McCarthyism and cease denying employment to those you deem politically misguided.”   (But in the sentence immediately prior he took a gratuitous, and misinforming, swipe at conservatives himself.) Still, in an update note, Cohen writes that Name Withheld opted to take a pass on the conservatives and offer the job opportunities only to those who were, at least, not obviously conservative.

Candidates are rejected from the job search process for all sorts of capricious reasons – the most capricious ones usually bundled under the umbrella idea of cultural fit.  And that’s wrong and stupid, because, from the corporation’s perspective, the bias of “I can’t put my finger on why, but that person just wouldn’t work well with us” causes the company to possibly miss out on some really great talent and fresh thinking.

If, after an interview they decide they don’t like you, they don’t like you.  Oh well. But, at the phase of initial resume submission, it’s impossible to battle bias if you reveal more about yourself than you should. So what are you to do?

Hide your light. At least keep it covered when you’re walking amongst those who might shut you out of important opportunities like, say, a job.  Am I saying that you violate your personal sense of integrity and travel incognito so you can get a job with a company that represents values that you oppose? Absolutely not.  But if the job marketplace you’re targeting is values-neutral, that doesn’t mean the hiring manager isn’t biased. So why ask for trouble?  Or continued unemployment.  If your political position, race, religion, gender, or any other differentiating characteristic isn’t necessary for the performance of your job responsibilities – or even if those details aren’t crucial to your ability to play nicely with your colleagues – don’t volunteer those particulars on your resume.

My advice to all those hapless law student internship hopefuls who said perhaps a little too much: If it’s not essential to your job, and if it could conceivably alienate your hiring manager, leave it out.  Does that mean you don’t put in your time on those causes you care deeply about? Nope. Just don’t put it on your resume if you think it could squeeze you out of consideration like a bar of soap through a wet fist. And try to fill in some extra time in your packed schedule volunteering for some hot-button neutral cause that you also care deeply about.  I know that’s easier said than done, especially for busy law students, parents, college seniors, or just about anyone. But a strategic mix of extracurricular activities could make all the difference between “we’ll put your resume in our files in case of future need,” and “when can you start?”