Ask HR: An Interviewer Just Asked My Religion. He's a Priest

mailto:ask@namely.comThe modern workplace moves in mysterious ways. That’s what our monthly Ask HR mailbag series is all about. Over the past few weeks, we’ve collected your anonymous HR, payroll, and benefits head-scratchers. And as always, you delivered. We received dozens of questions on a wide range of issues, ranging from recruiting compliance to office hygiene. 

Actually, we got a lot of questions on office hygiene. Be sure to refer to last September's edition before submitting any more of those, please.

Anyway, we turned to our in-house HR experts to answer your burning questions. Joining us for this month's mailbag are Namely's own Nneka Craigwell, Julie Li, Ryan MacPherson, and Matt Zambrio. If you have a question you'd like us to answer in a future edition of Ask HR, be sure to use the form at the bottom of the page.


"I'm in the running for a marketing job at a local church's back office. My interviewer (actually a priest) caught me off guard when he asked if I went to church. Is that even legal?"

- Faith in Fort Worth

This is a really interesting question because, under most circumstances, asking an individual about their religion during the interview process would be a no-go. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has provided exemptions for religious institutions. Believe it or not, religious groups can ask a candidate about their beliefs and even provide preferential placement to those whose beliefs align most closely with their own.

Keep in mind that this EEOC exemption does not apply to the other protected classes, like race, gender, and disability status. For those, religious institutions are held to the same standard as any other company.

Having volunteered for back office functions at a church, I’ve also found that employees may be asked to attend all worship services and agree to standards of conduct. Ultimately, the church wants to confirm that individuals who become employees believe and are willing to live by standards established for parishioners.

"Should employees have a say in who their potential manager might be during the interview process? How much should their opinions matter?" 

- Opinionated in Oregon

 While I've never personally been a part of the interview process when my company was hiring for my manager, that’s not to say it is or isn't the right approach. I’m fine with employees being part of the interview process when filling the role they would report to. By including the direct reports in the process, it also gives the candidate the opportunity to evaluate the team they're potentially joining. Don’t be surprised if the candidate flips the process around and starts to ask you questions about the work you’re doing and how you get along with the rest of the team.

I don’t believe the employee’s opinion should be weighted as heavily as the hiring manager’s opinion unless there are red flags uncovered during their part of the interview process. The interview process should be structured so everyone knows what they are evaluating for and then a debrief meeting should be held after.

What if the employees interviewing are people managers and the overall leader is higher ranking? There’s definitely value in having the next-level manager get a say in the process.  As Matt stated, their opinions may not be weighted as heavily, but welcoming the feedback of the frontline team adds value, builds trust, and cuts down on the "surprise" factor.

"We have an employee with very poor hygiene. He has false teeth and continually takes his dentures in and out of his mouth. His fingernails are long and filthy—and when we have food at the office, he's the first to dig in with his hands. How do I tell him to use good manners and cut his nails?" 

- Grossed Out in Gainesville

Discussing an employee’s personal hygiene can be tough. When providing feedback, we typically focus on the business impact of that individual’s contributions, but that may not be possible in these circumstances. The topic should ideally be addressed delicately (but directly) by someone that the employee trusts.

Assuming the complaints have come to you anonymously, I would encourage you to speak with the employee one-on-one. Inviting their manager could potentially make that employee more uncomfortable and put them on the defensive. Be candid and share that employees have come to you with these concerns and you wanted to have a conversation.  Chances are that the employee may be a little embarrassed and will want to come to a resolution quickly. While I’d typically recommend engaging them in problem solving and shaping a path forward, I think it’s appropriate to be direct and say “We’d like to ask you to stop doing X.”

While these conversations are almost always uncomfortable, it’s best to just rip off the band-aid and be direct. You (and the employees that complained) will be glad you did.

"We recently celebrated International Women’s Day. Our event was a huge success and we saw engagement all around. That said, an employee approached HR afterwards and asked if we were planning to celebrate International Men's Day, too. He seemed well-meaning enough, but how do I politely answer questions like his without sounding dismissive?" 

- Stumped in Seattle

I would thank him for raising his concern and respond that it is something you can bring up to the leadership team. The follow-up, assuming you have no plans of celebrating International Men’s Day, is that the company is focused on celebrating underrepresented groups in the workforce.

Julie: I would recommend having a conversation with the employee to better understand their perspective and what they’d like to achieve with that celebration. "IWD" is internationally recognized and has a deep history behind why it was established. In the future, it may be helpful to share the backstory of these celebrations, the current state of affairs (e.g., the gender wage gap), and why your organization feels it’s important to recognize them.

Also, you may want to consider a broader education initiative on diversity, inclusion, and belonging for your company, so that employees have a better understanding of the experiences of underrepresented groups. Creating more awareness is the first step to building a community of allies.

"What do you do with someone who constantly talks to himself? It is sometimes nonstop and annoying to the person in the next cubicle." 

- Peeved in Pittsfield

You, or the manager, can have a conversation with the employee to let them know that they need to be mindful of the people around them. Aside from that, there really isn’t much you can do. If it's that disruptive, you can look to move his seat to a place that would bother the fewest amount of people.

 I agree with Matt. Here, our current office floor plan is mostly open. To assist in the transition for employees who hadn't worked in an environment like that before, we recently provided a guide to success and productivity. For example, one of our tips was to be mindful of the volume of your voice during phone calls. While the situation you mentioned isn't limited to calls, broadly sharing tips like these might be a great way to address similar issues without calling out names or alienating any employees.

Think you've got a real HR, payroll, or benefits stumper? Try us. Whether your question is serious or just plain unusual (we get a lot of those), send it our way and we might just answer it on the Namely Blog. Simply email or complete the form below for a chance to be featured in our next edition.

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