The first job I had after I left graduate school was a little different than most of my previous employment. For one, it was a government job - the Government of British Columbia in Canada, to be exact. The seven previous years' worth of employment consisted of teaching and research positions within universities or with academic professionals in the US and Canada. Secondly, I was faced with a completely different world and a completely different set of expectations, beliefs and values that I was expected to conform to. It was a shock to my educated, scientific, and objectively trained mind, and it didn't go down easily.
God or The Queen: Your Choice
What would you do if your employer gave you a forced choice scenario?
You Want Me to What?
Most of the process of getting hired by government was fairly standard. Until I got to my first day. Before you actually get to sit down at your desk and start work on a real project, you need to fill out forms, sign things, figure out how you're going to get paid - basically, you must deal with the strange little machine we call Human Resources. And it was at this point that I was thrown my first curve ball.
HR lady sat behind her desk, and I sat in the chair facing her desk, and she informed me that I was going to have to swear an oath of secrecy. I can't remember if they officially called it an "Oath of Secrecy", specifically, but it was called an oath. And the point of it was this: I had to promise not to publicly divulge the contents of my work while I was working for the government and up to a few years after leaving. Okay, fine. Whatever. I didn't really have a problem with that. I'd worked with sensitive FBI data before, so I knew what discretion and professional ethics were. At the time, I didn't have a lot of experience with nor had I done a lot of thinking about human rights abuses, so I wasn't of a mind to pose 'what if' scenarios to Ms. HR.
To proceed with the oath-making, I had to swear. It wasn't a court-room drama scenario that we usually see on TV. Swearing an oath could be done by simply signing your name on a written statement.
I had to swear to either God or Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second. It was my 'choice'.
Some choice. I must have sat there stunned for a moment or two. I'd never been asked to do something like that before. I was an atheist. No god existed in my mind or life, nor was it necessary or even rational for that matter. I was also Canadian and a non-royalist - the Queen, despite sort of having a pretend-seeming, figurehead role in our country, really doesn't do anything to or for us. There are those - usually old people and those of British heritage - who feel some kind of connection with the Queen, but most of us don't care that much. So I was faced with what, to me, was a really strange situation.
I knew I needed to respond, and I did the only thing I felt I could do. I responded, "Well, I suppose I will have to choose the Queen because at least she is a real person." How could I swear to an imaginary being? The woman may as well have asked me to bow down to Jack, from Jack and the Beanstalk.
And so I compromised my beliefs for my first non-academic job in Canada.
What would have happened if I had refused to swear to either of these ridiculous personages? I was young at the time - 27 - I wasn't naive, but I also didn't do a lot of the boat-rocking that I do much more of now. I needed a job badly, and I felt that not signing an oath would mean that I would be denied employment. If I were in that same situation now, I would have done something different. The requirement, in my opinion, was discriminatory, and I think you can provide a legally-binding, non-disclosure agreement without having to make strange and offensive requests of people.