Discrimination in hiring practices

First World Country Lacking Disability Employment Legislation

As an employer, you can follow these principles to adopt fair employment practices: Recruit and select employees on the basis of merit (such as skills, experience or ability to perform the job), regardless of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities, or disability.

– Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP)




Complete Lack of Legislation

Except there is no piece of legislation that protects the disabled from employment opportunities. In application forms, candidates are often required to declare any physical or mental illness and whether this disqualifies a candidate, we don’t know.

A local recruitment agency, The GMP Group, revealed that more than half of the employers that the agency handles want job applicants to state their mental condition. These employers are from both multinational and local companies.

Ang said: “Why do you need to ask that question? I have asked that of our universities. I am told that when the students are admitted to the university, they would pay extra attention if these students are under stress.

“But if a university does it to prevent a mentally ill person from gaining admission, then I think it is wrong.”

This practice is detrimental for young adults with mental illnesses and who are seeking employment.

The fact that we don’t know whether declaring an illness disqualifies one from employment will definitely deter some from applying in the first place.

Even if not specifically required, employers – such as the largest one in Singapore, the Public Service – may ask applicants to declare existing medical conditions, “including mental illness” .

“The declaration question or clause has always been a dilemma,” said Ms Porsche Poh, Silver Ribbon executive director.

“If applicants declare a record of illness, they risk not getting the job even though they may be fully capable. If they don’t declare it, they have to lie and live in fear of being judged later if they have a relapse. So, many dare not apply for a job.”

To say that we cannot implement some form of legislation to prevent employers from using illness as a factor in employment is simply nonsense.

We should also not fall into the trap of thinking those with disabilities are somehow allowed only two mutually exclusive options — either legislation or public education. Why not both?

The public doesn’t talk about mental health, and the stigma around it is accepted to a certain extent in Singapore.

In the US and UK, the law forbids an employer from asking about an employee’s mental health state before an offer is made. Employers in Hong Kong are also forbidden from discriminating against those with mental illnesses.


A nation of recommendations

And those with mental illnesses are often the ones who are looking to integrate by seeking employment, being those most passionate about working. Instead, they are deterred by questions about one’s ability due to mental illness, exemptions from National Service due to struggles with mental illness and hypothetical situations where one could relapse and cause trouble for the employer.

The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices emphasises the importance of recruiting and selecting employees on the basis of merit regardless of age, race, gender, religion, disability or family status. Job application forms should only ask for information that is relevant to assessing an applicant’s suitability for the job.


My Thoughts

I have personally faced trouble in employment. Whether it is looking for a position or filling up employment application forms that require me to declare my mental illnesses. This is then often followed by probing about my condition, medication, side effects and worst case scenarios. I see myself becoming more reluctant to apply for positions or go to interviews because I am a victim of this inferred negative probing about how my condition could potentially affect my performance.

Although my condition does affect me on a day-to-day basis, I feel that my performance at work is higher than usual. I have often thought that most full-time positions can be fulfilled by part-time workers working part-time hours. With increased productivity gives me the flexibility to take care of my mental well-being and increases output for the employer, but sadly, that is not the case. Most employers are looking to reduce the risk of employing the mentally ill. Kiasu (fear of losing) indeed.


Truly Ignorant

My sentiments are not helped by posts like the following (this is not the first time I reference this post):

It is not entirely right for Miss Lee Kay Yan to label employers’ attitudes towards those with mental illnesses as “unfair” (“Help those with mental illness to return to work”; June 15).

In the case of physical handicaps or gender/ethnic discrimination, the Government can institute regulations that help people at minimal cost; for instance, in the form of barrier-free access to buildings and anti-discrimination laws. Such practices even allow companies to discover and make better use of talent.

However, mental illness can be costly to employers, especially if conditions relapse.

Mental illness is also costlier to companies because it is unpredictable. It may be costly to a company’s reputation to have front-line staff who suffer relapses.

Planning becomes more difficult and monitoring costs would also rise for staff in positions of greater responsibility. On top of all that, there are also concerns about the impact on staff morale and safety.

Organisations like the Singapore Armed Forces recognise this and consequently avoid delegating too much responsibility to the mentally ill, sometimes even exempting them from national service.

Miss Lee suggests that companies work closely with the Institute of Mental Health to provide training and employment to former patients. This suggestion is already a hint that employing the mentally ill will be costly.

The patients have done nothing wrong, but companies also have their bottom lines to consider; they are not charities.

To draw the analogy of barrier-free access to buildings, if every building were mandated to give access to the physically handicapped, there would be fewer reasons to discriminate against them. Employers’ hiring decisions would not depend on whether they happen to rent an office with barrier-free access.

Likewise, to help the mentally ill, one would need to train every employer and every Singaporean to be more aware of how to work with people with such conditions – similar to teaching everyone basic first aid. This is obviously much harder than building ramps and lifts in every building.

Whether this is a workable solution remains to be seen.

Sum Siew Kee


Only Asking For Equality, Not Special Treatment

The patients have done nothing wrong, but companies also have their bottom lines to consider; they are not charities.

If the patients have done nothing wrong, why are their conditions a factor in the profits of a company? This is quintessential of how unempathetic we are as a country. Instead of addressing the fact that our own community members might face discrimination in applying for a job, we care about bottom lines.

“Training every employer and every Singaporean to be more aware of how to work with people with such conditions” should be what we are working towards. Instead, it is compared to building ramps and lifts.

I am not pleading for companies to be charities. I am asking them to be semi-decent companies that recognise that some with mental illnesses can do jobs equal or better than your current employees and not disqualify someone just because they are ill.

I am truly disgusted that such an opinion still exists. I feel that my dignity as one with a mental illness is swept under the rug, or rather under the ramps and lifts sitting atop a pile of profits.


References, Links & Sources:

  1. http://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/good-work-practices/fair-employment-practices
  2. http://www.theindependent.sg/yet-another-hurdle-jobs/
  3. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/call-to-remove-mental-health-query-on-job-forms
  4. http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/why-spore-needs-disability-legislation
  5. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00010245-WA&currentPubID=00010243-WA&topicKey=00010243-WA.00010245-WA_7%2BhansardContent43a675dd-5000-42da-9fd5-40978d79310f%2B
  6. http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/not-so-simple-to-hire-those-with-mental-illness

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