Job application forms aid in discriminatory hiring

Discriminatory Hiring

Sorry, wrong nationality

There must be quite a few red faces at the government agencies when The Straits Times went to dig out tender advertisements these agencies had put up in recent months. The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, a junior college and a primary school were all found to have breached anti-discrimination hiring guidelines by specifying age ceilings in requirements for security guards.

Amongst other excuses, both the ministries blamed it on an “oversight” from reusing old contract documents, meaning that it used to be standard practice. So it was a case of old hiring habits die hard, when clearly these old habits are no longer acceptable in a political environment that is casting a spotlight on employers for their recruitment practices.

Just last week, two firms had to apologise for job ads asking for specific nationalities. Foreigners hiring their own kinds is a practice Singaporeans have plenty of anecdotal evidence on, and seems quite rampant in banks and other big corporations. So it’s good that the government has now openly acknowledged how widespread the problem is and is looking to tackle the issue at a national level.

Besides tackling discriminatory job ads, we should also look at archaic job application forms that ask for unnecessary personal information. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) gives the following guidelines on application forms:

Job application forms are used to obtain relevant information from job applicants to assess their suitability for the job. Thus, job application forms should request for information relevant to the requirements of the job, to enable hiring managers to shortlist the right applicants for interview. This ensures that the job applicants are assessed fairly and based on merit.

Additional personal data if required for administrative purposes can be collected after selection or shortlisting. If the additional personal data are asked in the application form, the form should state that the information is captured for administrative purposes only.

If The Straits Times wants to do more investigative journalism (don’t laugh) in this area, it can take a look at the online application forms from our three local banks DBS, UOB and OCBC.

All three forms require date of birth, gender and nationality as mandatory fields. Marital status is compulsory for both DBS and UOB, and DBS goes even further in demanding for your race/ethnic group. For some strange reason, both OCBC and UOB think it’s vital to know where is your place of birth.

Note that these are applications for normal desk-bound office jobs, so there is no reason why your age, gender, race or marital status should matter.

For nationality, instead of blatantly asking for it, most global banks will ask something along the lines of “Do you require a work permit / visa for the location you are applying”. DBS’s form already contains such a field under “Resident Status in Country of Hire”.

We see that even without explicit discriminatory requirements in job ads, companies can easily use these compulsory but irrelevant personal information in their application forms to sieve out applicants on criteria other than pure merit.

All three forms also require passport/NRIC numbers that should only be provided nearer final selection, not in an initial submission. After all, this is sensitive information that shouldn’t be given out so freely when the majority of applicants will end up being rejected.

Other quirks include DBS giving you the option to upload your photo — it was a common practice to attach photos onto paper forms before the days of the Internet but a big no-no in some countries these days — and the other two banks asking you about your religion in an almost breezy “oh, by the way, if you don’t mind telling us” manner.

These are just examples from three local banks, and there must be other government agencies, GLCs and SMEs that are guilty of similar practices. It is not unheard of that some forms ask you to fill out details of your family ancestry, even if the job scope is more double-shot espresso-toting office boy than double-O-seven secret agent.

Unfortunately, this is an area that Singapore companies lag far behind international standards, and the government or TAFEP should really put out clear guidelines on what should not be allowed in application forms unless there are job-specific reasons for doing so.

These banks could argue that these information are merely for administrative purposes, as the TAFEP guidelines provide for if clearly stated so on the forms — except that their forms never give any such disclaimer; or they could blame it on JobStreet and JobsDB who host their job portals. Or it could just be another bureaucratic “oversight”.

Whatever the excuse, it is really — to put a pun on it — very bad form indeed.