Religious Observance and Employment: To Shake or Not to Shake?

handshakePractical advice for clients whose religious observance prevents them from shaking hands.

It’s disrespectful and dis-empowering to insist that clients “just get over it” and shake hands when it goes against their strongly held religious beliefs. 

We can explain how important it is in interviews and other first impression situations. But what if they are still unwilling to do it?  

For me, disaster happened when a client (male) refused to shake hands with the General Manager (female) of a major employer partner at a job fair.  He didn’t get the job, the GM was really angry and it took several months to repair the partnership.

At the time, I didn’t know how to handle it or how to help clients prepare in a way consistent with their values. An article from a book of advice for sabbath observant Jewish professionals outlines options for handling situations when religious beliefs prevent shaking hands.

“Being honest is probably the best way to address it.  Explain that you are sorry but that you don’t shake hands for religious reasons. You hope that it isn’t take as a sign of disrespect and you appreciate this opportunity.”

The entire article is really interesting and it does give other, less useful, suggestions for handling the situation. It’s valuable to glean practical solutions that could help Muslim clients from advice from another religious perspective. Click here if you’re curious about the entire book, Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews?


  1. Chris Hogg says:

    We teach our clients who do not shake hands with the opposite sex (men and women) a script for a first-time introduction:

    Employer: Hello, my name is Elizabeth, I’m glad to meet you (with hand extended).

    Client: Hello. My name is Omar. I’m glad to meet you, but I do not shake hands (without hiding or “pushing away” with the hands).

    This script keeps it simple, avoids the need to introduce religious or cultural explanations, yet acknowledges the lack of a handshake. It also gives the employer the option of accepting the “non-shake” or to ask for a reason why.

    If the employer asks why, then the client can say something like, “In my religion men and women do not shake hands unless they are related or married to each other, and I really am glad to meet you.”

    We encourage folks who do not shake hands for cultural reasons, to learn to shake hands even if it is uncomfortable. If a client gives a cultural reason for not shaking, the employer will most likely think along the lines of – Well, you’re in America now and you better learn the culture – and may be dis-inclined to hire the client, particularly if the job is at a higher level.

    The other suggested methods (hands full, splint on hand, etc) should, in my opinion, be avoided like the plague. As in all things, honesty really is the best policy.

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