Racism in job ads: What Singapore HR directors need to know

Incorrect wording in a job ad can generate claims of racism and a whirlwind of negative publicity. Here's how you can avoid a costly mistake.

Racism in job ads: What Singapore HR directors need to know
Creating all kinds of controversy, stories about racism in jobs ads seem to pop up every so often in the local media. Only last May, HRD Singapore published a piece on Randstad apologising for a ‘Filipino’ job ad it had posted online. This scenario put the firm in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Fortunately, it is not that difficult for others to avoid this fate with some understanding of how the guidelines work. We spoke to Susan de Silva, partner of Bird & Bird and employment law specialist, for more information.
No laws, only guidelines
Currently, Singapore has no official laws against racism in job ads. However, the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) sets some clear standards for employers: “[Race] should not be a criterion for selection of job candidates … Selection based on race is unacceptable and job advertisements should not feature statements like ‘Chinese preferred’ or ‘Malay preferred’.”
On the other hand, de Silva said there were certain policies tackling racism in one sense and referred to laws that “Singaporeans should be given fair consideration for jobs based on merit, to counter potentially discriminatory hiring practices in favour of foreigners”.
Writing a safe job ad
As for how employers could inadvertently write a racist job ad, de Silva said this was simply by “referring to race, language or religion as selection criteria for recruitment”. There are certain exceptions to this, including employees being required to speak Malay, Indonesian or another language to properly deal with foreign clients or partners.
In 2013, the then Acting Minister for Manpower, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, gave a speech on fair employment practices. “Sometimes, it is a matter of the management of companies being more aware and putting in place responsible HR practices,” he said. “A lot of it comes from sensible management, sensible engagement. Be conscious of what you are doing – be conscious about what your managers are doing.”
de Silva also had advice for how employers could write a job ad following TAFEP guidelines so as to avoid causing offence:
  • The criteria should be clearly stated within the job advertisement
  • These should be related to qualifications, skills, knowledge and experience only
  • If any criteria could be viewed as discriminatory, more details should be added about the reason for its inclusion, ie why it is required for the job
The employer benefits from this as well since an in-depth job ad makes sure that all requirements are well understood while expanding the range of eligible applicants. Negative perceptions can then be avoided in the process.
The consequences of racism
Within Singapore’s present legal framework, there are no direct penalties or fines for racism in job ads, says de Silva. If there has been a complaint that an employer is not meeting TAFEP guidelines however, “MOM will step in to investigate and will not hesitate to curtail work pass privileges”. This can be a real deterrent especially for large organisations dependent on foreign labour.
While speaking in parliament in 2013, Mr Chuan-Jin mentioned a “prominent company” which had posted a discriminatory job ad. As a result, “The company was directed to remove the advertisement immediately which it did. Their work pass privileges were suspended and MOM asked to see their senior management. A few flew into Singapore to meet with MOM.” It was only after the Ministry was satisfied that the firm had taken sufficient remedial action that they were allowed to get their work pass privileges back.
Reacting to a crisis
If an ad is posted which people then deem racist or offensive, de Silva recommends taking the following steps to properly respond to the situation:
  1. Take down the advertisement immediately
  2. Replace it with a properly-worded job ad
  3. Put out a formal apology, if necessary
  4. Affirm your firm’s commitment to diversity
In this way, damage can be mitigated and the firm can maintain its reputation without any major backlash. Suspension of work passes may also be minimised for those who promptly comply with MOM’s instructions at the time.
Related stories:
Retailer under fire for ‘duties’ in job ad
Employer apologises for ‘Filipino’ job ad
Are you asking illegal interview questions?

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