Does being a Mormon help or hinder your career?

I’ve been reading a pretty interesting book for one of my classes: “A Spy for all Seasons” by Duane Clarridge. He’s a fairly egotistical but clearly bright man who spent years in the Clandestine Services at the CIA. He spends a fair amount of the book commenting on other people’s careers, strengths, and ineptitudes–which is both fascinating and makes me grit my teeth in annoyance. Eventually he got to a Mormon (who’s name was changed to protect his identity). This kid was sent to Ankara to work as a clandestine case officer, that is to recruit and handle people passing information on their own governments–this is the way the U.S. government manages its human intelligence gathering. A big part of the job was to become socially active in the diplomatic community and use those social contacts to recruit spies. Apparently the Mormon was a complete failure. He was uncomfortable at functions with alcohol, despite the help of his fellow CIA officers. Clarridge suspected he had never been outside his insular community, and he and his wife seemed unable to socially adapt to a non-Mormon social situation. Clarridge wrote a scathing employee evaluation, and as a result the Mormon eventually left the CIA to become an academic. (Clarridge assumed he’d done the Mormon kid a favor, but was given a hard time in Washington for the harsh review. This experience made him cautious to write an excessively negative review against an egotistical but inept case officer a few years later–Aldrich Ames.) I don’t know how much the harsh review of this kid was due to his insularity, his moral qualms with manipulating others to essentially commit treason, or to the prejudices of those around him who seemed quick to connect his religion with his work performance.

I had a disturbing experience a few years ago. I was leaving a job that I hated, and where things were going very badly for me. One particular person, who had shown his lack of scruples to me on other occasions, was spreading false rumors about me–I’m assuming to effectuate some staffing changes he wanted. As I was packing up my office he came in and offered me his best wishes, then shut the door and said “Do you have something to say to me…come on the door’s shut, you can say anything.” I was aghast. Even though I’m usually pretty slow on the uptake I was sure he was trying to find out if I knew what he had been doing to me. I carefully crafted an answer for two reasons (1) I wasn’t sure yet if I was going to tell anyone before I left and (2) I was trying my best to forgive him, and calling him a two-faced jacka** wasn’t going to help. So I said “I believe everything in life happens for a purpose, and I’m very excited about the opportunities that are opening up to me–I think that this change will be best for me.” He got very annoyed and barked at me “You don’t have to be so spiritual about it, it’s just a job.” He got up and left and I never saw him again. I had never made an issue of my religion at that job. I’m assuming they knew I was Mormon because I went to BYU. One time, a few years earlier, I had left work early on a Sunday to go teach Sunday School. That was it. And yet, I suddenly felt as if the animosity I’d experienced could be partly explained by bigotry. I still feel kind of sick thinking about it.

But, I can’t claim to be some kind of victim, because I think that other opportunities have opened up to me because of my religious affiliation. The interview process for my current job was really pretty funny. A friend from church introduced me to the office director. A couple of minutes into the interview, he found out I had been a missionary in Russia, we started talking in Russian, and after about 15 minutes he said “well, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve got the job.” I had to finish interviewing with others, etc., but I know that my missionary experience was a huge factor in my favor. I love my job, and am surrounded by people who have worked with other Mormons, were really impressed by them, and have expressed their respect to me.

We’ve all heard stories like this. They are the tales that make it into the back of the Ensign and get me all teary eyed. One memorable story that was on the back page of the Church News a few years ago concerned a branch president in my mission. He was unemployed, and while that left him a lot of time to minister to the branch, he was stressed about supporting his young family. Eventually he got a job interview with a Scandinavian company–for a job that would pay well for the area. He showed up at the interview with several other Russian applicants, and the company, as per Russian custom broke out the Vodka. He declined the offer of alcohol, much to the derision of the other Russians. One of the interviewers asked him why, and he explained that he was a Mormon and was not drinking for religious reasons. He was very concerned that he would no longer be considered for the job, but much to his surprise, the employer told him that he knew other Mormons, that they were honest hard workers, and the branch president was offered the job.

So, I’m trying to figure out, are there jobs that Mormons are not good at, by virtue of being Mormon–or jobs that we are better at by virtue of our religion? Are these isolated incidents of discrimination or praise, and not indicative of larger themes, or is there some overriding curve that we benefit or are hurt by? The problem with this kind of inquiry is that the evidence will all be anecdotal (I think…) But, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(One request, please be careful with other people’s stories and identities…I’m very sensitive to the very public nature of this kind of conversation.)


  1. BYU has an excellent design program with a large network in NYC. So I guess I can say that being Mormon has helped my career. The companies that have tapped into the BYU-design network love it and recruit heavily from it because of the generally honest, hard-working, and well-educated/trained nature of the graduates.

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    Karen, I like how you state the question. Some things we’re probably a bit better than average at, other things a bit or a lot worse.

    If an international assignment is ever part of your career, I’d say the church can be a huge help by providing an instant network wherever you are (mostly). The benefits local wards can provide for expatriate Americans can easily be worth every penny they pay in tithing. Even for relocating within the US, there are significant benefits above and beyond the EQ moving crew.

  3. I have a good friend whose brother left the church. She believes that it was a result of his being a spy. His job was to lie and cheat and steal…while I’m grateful for those that so protect me, I have to believe that there is a personal cost.

    On a different front, every university I visited for graduate work (including Ivies) stated that they loved their BYU alums and asked how they could get more. I know that I would not have worked in France were it not for my mission’s blessing of fluency in the language.

    So, a few areas where Mormonism is likely a disadvantage: politics, viniculture, acting.

  4. Paul Ramsell says:

    Being Mormon and involved in Utah politics is a massive advantage. But as we are seeing with Mitt Rommey, it can also be a disadvantage.

  5. Many males I know have come by job leads or hook ups through their elders quorums. One person put his eagle scouts award on his resume. I doubt it was the cause for him getting the job, but who knows. Like others have mentioned, mission experience can also help, which males are more encouraged towards than females. Leading to my hypothesis that being mormon helps your career more if you are male.

    Granted, having BYU, a somewhat known school, on my resume hasn’t hurt.

  6. The question is what occupations is it a hinderance to put “Eagle Scout” on your resume?

  7. My BYU alum DH was recommended to his graduate program by his non-LDS advisor with the accolade, “If you ever need someone to guard the keg, he’s your man.”

  8. Nice post Karen.

    One question we could ask (related to this) — do I put my mission on the resume? Do I describe it as a “mission” or do I find some other way to describe it? Or do I leave it off completely?

    I think there are some jobs, graduate programs, etc. where for one reason or another a lot of returned missionaries apply. I imagine that the huge stack of resumes that describe the same life pattern can get a bit old and unimpressive. If there are dozens of applicants who are eagle scouts who performed two years of service in a foreign country (or wherever it was) … well, there might be a feeling that a person should have work experiences or service opportunities that are not completely bound up with living the LDS life.

    I once heard about a LDS young man applying to a graduate program who listed his marriage under a category of “leadership opportunities.” I also once saw a resume where a person listed callings he had in church as valuable work experiences.

    I’m curious how people draw the line and either reveal themselves as LDS or choose not to reveal themselves as LDS in the job/school application process. Maybe this question should be extended to job interviews as well.

    We seem to sometimes be stuck in a situation where our LDS experiences are almost entirely decisive in favor or disfavor of our getting a job/position.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I practice public fianance law in Chicago. For me, being LDS has mostly been a positive in advancing my career. In particular, when I interviewed for my first real job out of law school, the fact that I was LDS, had served a mission and had studied classics at BYU were all positives in the hiring decision. (And many of the partners who interviewed me were fairly secular Jews.)

    On the other hand, I still suck at and do not enjoy cocktail party type settings and the type of gladhanding that leads to good business development skills. And given my commitment to family and church I have fashioned my career in a way that avoids spending most evenings and weekends at the office, which means I probably earn less than I might otherwise, but I still do just fine.

  10. I know my father in his latest national job search found that being a mormon helped and hurt him. For example in Washington D.C. he usually got a good response to BYU on his resume. The people there use the Mormon temple as a landmark as it sits on the busy beltway. My father believes that a good opinion is generated by the beauty of the temple. There were other parts of the country where he could feel the disadvantage of having BYU on his resume. Namely the midwest, and south.

    Having BYU on my resume has not affected me either way, but I always ended up in a discussion for good or bad after the “where did you go to school” question arises with collegues. Some colleges are prepared with a “i knew a mormon” story, or the “your a mormon” comment followed by a polygamy crack. And others are silent. Its the silent ones I worry about.

  11. cchrissyy says:

    I supported our family as a mystery shopper when my husband was in school, but I had to quit when joining the church.
    that job requires little lies a dozen times a day-
    at an apartment in a new town “I’m looking to move in on the 1st”
    at a pool store “we just moved in- (describe a fictional pool)- what chemicals will I need?”
    at a retailer- buy something and a couple hours later return it, making up any “oops” excuse.

    I now take only a very few jobs that are observation only, with no more instructions to lie. I know the staff’s answers are vital to training and bonuses, but I can’t be the person who bends the truth to do it.

    (not judging other Momrons who do though- I have a unique past of lying/cheating/stealing that makes this a danger zone for me. Like a recovcered alcoholic, I keep strictly away from borderline situations)

  12. For those in South, mention the 1984 BYU football team. That always seems to break the ice. “Dadgum, ya’ll had a reayal good team.”

  13. The FBI has a program specifically to recruit Mormons- both becuase of their foriegn language skills and becuase they are generally upstanding, hardworking reliable people. That was definitely a big factor in my brother being accepted to the academy.

    I list callings under volunteer service on my resume, but fairly generically- as “church leadership positions” or something similar. No one has ever asked for more specifics on that…

  14. In response to #8:

    Interestingly, during the final week of my mission, my mission president had all of the departing missionaries take the Career Workshop, which was designed by BYU-Hawaii I believe, and is frequently used in the church today. They encouraged us to translate our mission experience into language that would be clear and understandable to non-members (e.g. “service mission in a foreign country for a non-profit organization”). I don’t think this was very well accepted by a bunch of young, fired-up missionaries, but looking back on it, I can see the wisdom in the advice. When people hear “missionary,” they don’t think of the highly-structured mission organization or various leadership responsibilities. They may think of annoying and pushy door-knockers. The term “district leader” doesn’t mean anything to them. Converting the mission experience into business language can actually facilitate greater understanding and appreciation for it on behalf of the potential employer.

  15. I think the “both helps and hurts” is accurate — and common to many things in life.

  16. I think that anyone more than 5 years out of school, if they are still putting their mission and Eagle Scout on their resume, has other serious problems with their resume.

    As to the original point — I think that IS/IT work is problematic for many members of the Church. I work for a company who provides IT administration outsourcing work. Much of this work — performed for and on behalf of our clients — is done on Sundays or at night. I’m no longer in a position where I have to frequently have to work on the Sabbath, but there are occasions. I know LDS people who can’t deal with that. I try to equate it to police work, etc. — our international computing infrastructure would be disrupted significantly if IT changes were performed only around M-F, 8-5. I do my best to turn off my cell phone on Sundays, but there are occasions where I can’t get away from work.

    I think that prostitution or casino work is an issue for Mormons, as well.

  17. queno (#12)

    Having attended BYU works well in the Air Force, too–except for Air Force Academy grads. Most of them remember 1984, when the AFA lost exactly one game, a snowfest in Colorado, and finished 5th in the polls. If BYU hadn’t made the comeback, they would have been the only undefeated team that year, and probably had finished with the mythical national championship.

    The most uncomfortable staff meeting I ever attended was with a Base Commander who was a Notre Dame grad the Monday after BYU beat them in South Bend. Those were the days….

  18. Nate Oman says:

    Karen: Before law school I worked for a Senator for Kentucky. There is an exception in the gift-ban rules for home state products, which in the case of Kentucky basically means bourbon and cigarettes. I remember going to one event where a co-worker confided in me that he always tried to sit next to the Mormons so that he could get their mini-bottles. And — much to his delight — he did.

  19. Ghost of John Lennon says:

    While I certainly think that Mormons and others face discrimination and are hindered in some instances, I also think that sometimes members of the church use their faith as an excuse for failure to advance in a given career field. For example, my father is a full colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a faithful church member. On more than one occasion at BYU I heard other students relating that their fathers (I don’t recall anyone mentioning a mother in the military, but it was possible) were unable to advance in the military beyond the rank of major because of their faith–they weren’t promoted because they refused to drink at the officers club, use foul language, etc. I was always a little amused when I related to them the fact that my father managed to get promoted AND hold a temple recommend. These days that kind of talk is probably a little less common now that Elder Robert Oaks (retired 4-star USAF general) is well known in church circles. Anyway, I think we sometimes assume that our religious preferences hinder us when their may be other, more personally grounded, causes.

  20. Being Mormon definitely helped me in the German Army when I applied for an officers commission. I am not aware that it ever hurt me in terms of reputation.

    I suppose there is some fall out from the missionary experience. Not only did all of us lose two years on our peers but seeing the sacrilegeous instrumental approach to the gospel and the sacraments that prevails in the mission field seriously undermined my testimony and by implication my self-esteem.

  21. The pastoral experience that a mission provides can adequately equip a male LDS to serve as a chaplain in the military. The hard part is getting accepted to a M.Div program. I have been turned down by two protestant seminaries because of my religious affiliation.

  22. Hmm, I’m not a Mormon but have reviewed some resumes of people who are. My very idiosyncratic thoughts:

    1) Definitely include your mission if leaving it out would create some sort of gap on your resume. If you’re a BYU graduate and there’s a two-year gap between your graduation date and the next event in your life (e.g. the next job or starting grad school or whatever), my assumption would be that you served a mission. Given that, I would definitely wonder why it wasn’t on your resume. Unexplained gaps on resumes are generally a bad thing.

    2) Why not use the term “missionary”? I personally think that terms like “faith representative” or “church volunteer” are rather wishy-washy. Why not use a term that people expect? Yes, you can’t assume that everyone knows what a missionary or district leader actually does (what does a district leader do, btw?), so you will need to explain them in a secularly-acceptable manner. But you should be explaining your job duties and accomplishments for ALL of your jobs on your resume.

    3) If the position title is really an issue, give it some context if you can. Is there an official title for “district leader,” or is that just what everyone calls it? Could you reasonably call yourself a “Missionary District Team Leader”? Leadership is generally seen as a good thing. Can you write your resume so that it looks like in Year 1 you were just a missionary while in Year 2 you were a District Leader? Promotions are generally seen as a good thing. I’m betting that not everyone serves as a District Leader.

    4) The flip side to my advice is that while it may well impress me, if your resume went to a fellow Mormon they may well laugh at the B.S. you’re spreading.

    5) I really like the live preview function for comments!

  23. I can think of some jobs where it was harder because I was LDS — Disneyland, for the crazy schedule (they ended out assigning everyone in our ward who worked at the park to be each other’s Visiting/Home Teachers, because we could “teach” each other backstage if necessary — I had four VT visits done that way over 19 months, and only one visit anywhere else.) Some work in maintenance at my university — one of the girls liked reading erotic poetry out loud on our lunch hour, and I became so miserable that I just stopped showing up to work (trying to go to a separate room made the problem significantly worse, because then everyone mocked me; I was 17, and handled it very poorly.)

    Also some where it’s helped out — a former branch president and a former Sunday School teacher of mine both work at the company I’m currently temping at. It’s fun seeing them, and my supervisor was very impressed with their titles.

    Overall, though, I think being LDS hasn’t been as much of a problem as having a facial birthmark, being from California (no big deal at Disney, but problematic in Ohio, at times) and being a decently educated female in mostly lower-end jobs (I graduate soon, I swear) have been. Though at my current job, practicing Russian declensions and binary arithmetic between calls amuses my coworkers (in part because another supervisor of mine has a PhD in history from my university.)

    I don’t, however, have BYU or a mission to put on my resume. I tell interviewers that I teach Sunday School to 2nd graders, which they more or less “get.” Honestly, that helps me overcome the “you sure you aren’t too smart — and therefore uppity — for this work?” thing. They expect/hope for single women in their twenties to teach Sunday School. I do live in Ohio, after all.

  24. In the United States, employers by law can’t discriminate for or against someone because of religious affiliation, so I think it puts an employer in an awkward situation of your provide that information. I’d recommend putting down “church volunteer work” or something similar on the resume.

    And I’d say my religious affiliation has neither helped no hindered my career. Nobody really cares; but then again I keep my work and personal lives separate.

  25. Jonathan Green says:

    Hellmut, I hope you’ll find an opportunity to explain more some time about your experiences as a Mormon in the Bundeswehr; I’d like to hear more about it. I don’t understand the connection you’re making in the second paragraph, but it expresses very precisely and succinctly some of my own experiences.

  26. Aaron, we’ve had two M.Div students here at the University of Chicago in the last few years. One is now a chaplain, and the other is soon to follow. Both active LDS, they have also preached part-time at the local non-demoninational church.

  27. I wonder being the Messiah made it difficult for Jesus to find work as a carpenter.

  28. Ghost of John Lennon says:

    “I wonder [if] being the Messiah made it difficult for Jesus to find work as a carpenter.”
    Well, being a carpenter certainly made it difficult to be understood as the Messiahin some circles.

  29. Try doing a law-school application resume after a 17 year stint as a SAHM. You better believe I included my church callings… only in non-LDS language (try translating “Stake Primary Second Counselor”, lol… it came out as ‘training and supervision of children’s ministry personnel in 9 local congregations’). Oh, and six years as a cub scout den leader: “mentoring small groups of 8- to 11-year old boys in ethics, citizenship, and life skills”

    So far, being LDS has neither hurt nor hindered, though I’m starting to suspect that I’m not quite networking with my peers as I ought.

  30. Ben S. (#26) Thanks for the lead! UChicago’s program seems very open to all qualified applicants without regard to one’s denominational status.

  31. Elisabeth says:

    Interesting post, Karen! I’ve been pondering over your questions, and I can’t decide what I think about whether being a Mormon has helped or hurt my career. On one hand, I think it has helped – I remember during law school interviews that, almost invariably, the interviewer and I bonded over the joys of Utah skiing (my undergraduate institution being a non-BYU university in Utah), and the interview soon became a congenial conversation (with positive results) rather than an interrogation over my legal interests and qualifications.  (But for being a Mormon, my family would have not moved to Utah, and I would not have discovered the joys of Utah skiing).

    Also, this is a strange personal anecdote, but a few of my colleagues over the years (and one of my bosses) have said, in casual conversation, that they have never met any LDS women who work outside the home, and they wonder if I’ve had to leave Utah to escape a strict religious directive for women not to work. Even after I explained to them that this is not the case, I still got the feeling that they were more supportive of me at work because they viewed me as an outcast strugging to free myself from an oppressive religion.

    On the other hand, Kevin in #9 sums up nicely some of the potential roadblocks that might hinder one’s success as a Mormon in the business world.

  32. Harold Curts says:

    I think it can both help and hurt.

    I was asked to be on a committee early in my time in academia because I had BYU in my background and they “knew” BYU had a strong honor code. Experiences on that committee led to some other very positive experiences.

    When I was in the Navy, an XO who had been very positively impressed by Mormons in the past, made sure that the bill for my first wardroom party was handled differently than they had been in the past. He made sure the eating and alcohol bills were separate. Several of the other junior officers who liked having their drinking subsidized by the non-drinkers had an unpleasant suprise, and blamed me for the cost of their bill.

    I had to laugh at them, privately of course with the XO, and felt really grateful that I hadn’t gotten the alcohol bill–alcohol in Abu Dhabbi was not cheap.

    It took me some time to overcome that ouch to their wallet, or perhaps the in they felt I had with the XO–and to overcome the automatic exclusion that came my way to the junior officer drinking parties.

  33. I’ve mostly had experiences where having mission on my resume hurt me.

    That is, I’ve had a few very awkward job interviews, and even a few where I was told that I couldn’t be hired because of religion. (2 of these were overseas and 1 was as an SAT tutor where the classes were being held at a Chinese Church in LA).

    I found things particularly difficult when I was recently off the mission and looking for part-time work during college. I had almost no work experience, except the mission, and thus every interview that experience (or the reason I’d taken two years off school) were all people wanted to talk about.

    it’s now been years since then. I’ve had one experience where being Mormon probably got me my job. but I no longer list my mission on the resume. People probably just assume I spent 5 years in college, and I’m okay with that.

  34. norm, that means you only spent 3 years in college, or 1 year on your mission. If the former, nice job! If the latter, please excuse the tactless question….

  35. robert… no problem. the answer was the former. although i did attend summer school… so it was kinda like 3.5, and not exactly my choice either. i couldn’t afford to stay any longer.

  36. Fratello Giovanni says:

    I put my current calling on the resume and application when I applied for the job I have now. I only did this because 1) I wanted to explain what I was doing at the time besides collecting unemployment, and 2) some of what I do for my calling (involving GIS) relates to my job.

    I’ve played around in the past with putting my mission on my resume, but I found it a little awkward to explain. That round of unemployment (2002) I usually didn’t bother since I’d been home about eight years and I’d done plenty since.

    On the other hand, during that same round I sometimes listed my high school diploma on my resume. If I didn’t, people would often ask why someone who went to college in Utah and had mostly worked since in North Carolina would dare apply for a job in Delaware. The diploma was evidence that I’d grown up locally.

  37. Yeah, I understand about the mission on the resume dilemma. It’s far enough in the past for me that I just put it in a general list of “volunteer work” at the end of my resume, but I do call it a mission. Most people in D.C. in my line of work have had plenty of contact with Mormons, and so it’s not such a big surprise. In my experience, it seems generally worse to try and mask things–but I’ve never worked in the Bible belt.

    Elisabeth, I get the “outcast struggling to free yourself from oppressive religion” vibe. I was in a job interview once, and someone saw “Harvard Women’s Law Journal–articles editor” on my resume, and said “I didn’t think your church leaders would allow you to work on that journal.” I was sort of shocked that someone just came out and said that in an interview…but he seemed sort of impressed. It was a fairly awkward moment…

  38. A professor at Harvard’s MBA program and one at Michigan’s have both told me the same thing. They said that LDS students sometimes downplay their missions on their applications, and that is a mistake.

    They said: “Every top notch business school is very well aware of what missions do for students. They consider it a very positive factor in admissions.

    Personally I cannot think of anything which inhibited my career, because of being LDS. Everything was positive. There were occasional snide remarks, but I dismissed them because they were they were by people I was passing on the career ladder. And many others that I passed indicated their resepct for my beliefs.

  39. JA Benson says:

    I checked with my husband Mike who is a BYU graduate and a RM. Mike believes that being a member has had little affect on his career. However we had a surprise recently when our son received a combination ROTC and academic four year full scholarship at a top Engineering school. The ROTC people wanted him because he was LDS. Basically it was this, “They knew the reputation of RM’s and they wanted to get one”. The ROTC people told him that they expect him to serve a mission.

  40. I both agree with the comment that you should come right out and say “missionary” but also with the comment that there is a point where you don’t need to mention it anymore (depending on how many years ago your mission was and the degree to which you specialize in a field).

  41. My issue with putting “missionary” on my resume is one of placement.

    I’ve got 15 years of post-mission experience in senior-level IT positions and in academic research (oh, but I only finished my BS 10 years ago). When applying for most positions, if I list the positions chronologically, the mission is on page 8, if I give them my full CV.

    If I give them the one-pager, I include some of the mission experiences I’ve had in my experiences section under the “Leadership” column, and I make reference to my language skills, but other than that, including stuff from 15 years ago is a distraction. To each his own.

    I believe in the theory of “experiential half-life” — that the worth of any past experience diminishes at a constant rate over time. I used to work for IBM, but it’s been so long now, that bringing it up has a tendency to overshadow the past 8 years.

  42. I participate in the hiring decisions for an international law firm. I don’t think much of LDS applicants who mask their mission experience. I see plenty of resumes and applicants who have worked in volunteer Christian or Jewish causes and those items are displayed prominently. I have actually advised some BYU grads to re-cast their resumes to be more forthright; they tell me they mask their experiences at the recommendation of BYU counselors.

    Being a Latter-day Saint lawyer in a major urban area has its ups and downs. I have too many church and family responsibilities to hustle business and parties and socialize with my partners.

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