I've been in the recruiting industry for more than a decade now. And as the CEO of a company I co-founded, I have the freedom to excuse myself from 1:15-2:15 p.m. every Friday to attend Jumu'ah — a weekly congregational prayer service for the Muslim community. However, it wasn't always so simple.
When I was hired at my first job in the industry years ago, I explained to my manager that I would need to be excused for a non-traditional lunch hour on Fridays. Of course, after running it up the ladder, I was granted permission to attend Jumu'ah so as not to create any religious discrimination issues. Nonetheless, my manager took me aside afterwards and plainly stated that he would not have hired me had he known about my unique situation in advance.
Reflecting on this experience, there are countless other scenarios in which qualified candidates experience roadblocks or at least anxiety in their job search because of unique situations that might cause them to complete their duties outside the realm of a hiring manager's expectation.
I am speaking about the kinds of job applicants whose faith might dictate fashion choices (headscarves, saris) that don't fit into an established uniform, or who need to leave early on Fridays to observe the Sabbath, or who have physical handicaps that require special attention during the workday — all factors that likely have nothing to do with a candidate's ability to do a job effectively but that still might cause alarm bells to go off in the mind of a prospective employer.
And while these issues are of little consequence to the average job seeker, they can be extremely stressful for candidates that can't compromise certain lifestyle choices or restrictions for a new gig, eliciting a series of difficult issues that candidates grapple with before meeting a hiring authority.
For example, do these candidates tell the person interviewing them that they can't shake hands with someone of the opposite sex? Do they mention that a headscarf is part of their everyday attire? That they must leave before sunset every Friday? That they can't undertake certain physical tasks? And if there is an appropriate time to address these issues, when?
The bottom line is that if any of the above-mentioned lifestyle choices/restrictions apply to you (and, of course, there are countless others that I did not reference), it is important to know how to navigate these waters to maximise the likelihood of a placement. Here are a few tips.
Don't explain why you'd make a tough hire
The most important advice I can give to others in these circumstances is simply to treat job interviews exactly as anyone else would treat them. In other words, there is no reason to focus on or even bring up any limitations one might have. Obviously, if they arise in conversation then it would be unwise to lie, but focus on your virtues and make no indication that any of your characteristics would stand in the way of your success in the role in question.
Naturally, it's important to research the job spec and make sure that's actually the case. For example, if one can never work weekends, then even the most capable candidates probably wouldn't thrive in a role that regularly schedules employees for Friday and Saturday.
However, in those gray-area cases in which candidates need only slightly bend established rules to make the job work for them (such as delaying lunch for an hour in my example, which had no effect on my ability to be an effective account manager), there is no reason to sell oneself short by telling your prospective employer all the reasons you'd make a tough hire.
At the end of the day, if you don't make any unique lifestyle choices or limitations a big deal, it will make it easier for the interviewer to judge you on your skills and merits alone. Then, once you've been determined to be a good technical and cultural fit for a role, hiring managers will likely have more reason to look past those issues (after all, highly sought after skills trump all else) instead of potentially clouding their judgment from the get go that you have special circumstances that may be burdensome to the company.
Always be positive, even if others try to make you feel otherwise. Truly positive people are the ones who remain optimistic in the face of adversity, and those who buy into the negative assumption that their unique circumstances will hold them back often end up becoming the ones who don't even try. After all, had I allowed myself to believe that attending Jumu'ah — a service I've always held dear — would prevent me from achieving my career goals, I wouldn't be writing here today. So get inspired, be yourself, and never let your personal choices or physical characteristics prevent you from pursuing your professional dreams.
Of course, once a candidate who is subject to unique circumstances accepts an offer, there is a series of other issues to navigate. For example…
When do you tell your employer about any special needs you may have?
While it may not be the best idea for candidates to bring up any of their unique needs during the early stages of the interview process, once they start in a new position it will be necessary to explain these situations to a manager so they can be accommodated. And when considering when to do this, new hires will want to explain their special circumstances quickly lest they come up and catch management by surprise (you don't want to be the man or woman who leaves early on Friday for the Sabbath without anyone understanding why).
As such, the orientation period that generally occurs in a new hire's first week is a great time to explain to a manager that a modest amount of flexibility will be necessary to accommodate certain physical limitations or religious practices. But, when having this conversation, it is always wise to have creative alternatives in mind. For example, if it is necessary that a new hire must leave early or for a period of time during the work day, express willingness to late or come in on a Sunday. This will hopefully convey to the manager in question that the hire doesn't expect special treatment and is willing to go the extra mile to accommodate those unique needs.
What if your manager or co-worker doesn't take kindly to your unique circumstance?
The point I'm trying to convey here is that with open and honest communication coupled with creative solutions, there should be no reason why open-minded colleagues would take issue with a new hire who needs a bit more flexibility in his/her job. However, in the case that any co-workers don't take kindly to these needs, it is important to know one's rights.
Australia has various anti-discrimination and equal opportunity acts that make it unlawful to discriminate based on religious beliefs (or age, parental status, race, political belief and more).
So with that in mind, talk to the company's HR rep, know your rights, arm yourself with creative solutions, and there should be no reason whatsoever that any unique lifestyle choices or physical limitations should hold qualified candidates back in the job force.
Murshed Chowdhury is the CEO of specialised IT staffing firm Infusive Solutions-– an NYC-based member of the Microsoft Partner Network that focuses on the placement of Windows systems engingeers, developers, desktop support, and SharePoint professionals.
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