Religious Disclosure

Q. Do I have to tell a prospective employer that I keep Shabbat? I'm applying for a job in a lab, where it is frequently necessary to work weekends, but through careful planning I generally make sure that my Shabbat observance is not a burden on my co-workers. I want to be open about my religious observance, but there are not really a lot of good jobs in my field. Is it permissible for a man to remove his head covering?

A. This is the famous "kippah question": Should I go to the interview with a kippah? Jewish campus life always buzzes with inside information as to which employers supposedly discriminate against kippah or head-scarf wearers, and which don't mind.

The basic rule is that potentially negative information should be actively revealed to the prospective employer if it seriously affects your ability to do the job. But there are very few jobs which are so negatively affected by Shabbat observance; even workplaces which run around the clock generally work in shifts which provide adequate flexibility. So if you suspect that the employer may be unfairly biased against Shabbat observers, you may carefully avoid revealing that you keep Shabbat.

What is unfair bias? American law requires employers "to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship."

In your field it is "frequently necessary to work weekends"; does that mean that accommodating you is an "undue hardship"? There's no simple answer. It is understandable that co-workers feel resentment when a Shabbat-observant worker disappears on Friday afternoon while they are still hard at work to meet a Monday deadline; yet often the resentment is not because you're not pulling your weight, but merely because you're not showing "solidarity."

Before you are hired, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Unless you have a firm basis for believing that your Shabbat observance will be a hardship for the employer, this is not the time for giving him an excuse to overlook your qualifications!

In North America, the interviewer may not ask about your religious observance. If he does, don't lie but politely explain that you prefer not to discuss religion on the job.

After you are hired but before you start work, be balanced. By now your employer is convinced of your capabilities; if you believe that he will be fair in accommodating you, this is the best time to be open. The employer will probably be reluctant to let you go unless he really does face an undue hardship. Just disappearing on Friday afternoon is not good manners.

If you are actually discontinued because you keep Shabbat, carefully evaluate the employer's point of view. It's best not to threaten a job-discrimination suit unless you actually intend to file one; court action should be used to protect your rights, not as a cudgel to frighten your employer into keeping you on if you're not pulling your weight.

Beyond the ethical aspects of your question, it is worth asking where you will be most comfortable. If you feel that changing your distinctive head covering is like apologizing for your observance, maybe it is worth passing up some opportunities in order to feel true to your beliefs – especially if jobs in your field are not too scarce.