Mindset change key to fixing age bias in hiring

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 2014

IT IS still not happening. Employers in Singapore have yet to fully embrace the Government's call not to discriminate when hiring. This is particularly true when it comes to the age-old (pun intended) issue of age.

Some have done so, of course. But I suspect most of these employers are in the service industry, where it is relatively difficult to attract an adequate number of younger applicants who are willing to do the work. Just take a look the next time you are at Changi Airport Terminal 3's basement foodcourt. Most, if not all, of the table cleaning staff are in their 60s, and probably even 70s.

Some employers are trying to change. But there are varying degrees of sincerity. Some simply do not care two hoots.

Hiring managers continue to specify tight prerequisites for headhunters - and a common one is, of course, age-related. Our population has aged, and will continue to age. Some experienced professionals have much to offer, not just in terms of experience, but also in terms of maturity and a network of contacts. Being 45 years old is definitely not tantamount to being past one's best.

Like most things in life, there will always be exceptions. One example is the recognition of three individuals in the caregiving profession with the President's Award for Nurses last year. Two of them were above 45. Perhaps, this is one profession where experience comes highly prized.

There are pros and cons to the idea of legislating hiring practices. I hope this will not happen, as I believe the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. The employment market should continue to be free. Employers must continue to have the right to make their own hiring decisions, free of labour legislation.

The crux of the issue is mindset. I happen to know one hiring manager, who told the headhunter that she would consider only candidates who were below a certain age. But she, herself, was above the specified age limit.

Human resource professionals have a big part to play here. For the past decade, or even longer, they have slowly but surely migrated from providing operational and administrative support to initiating strategic and business- focused HR initiatives. This is one profession where chief executive officers do not have to rely too heavily on foreign talent. Singapore does have global and business-minded HR professionals. But the reality is that the country does not have enough. Those who are already operating at the desired level of global, best-practice competencies must continue working on another aspect - speaking a little louder, both in the CEO's office and boardroom.

By nature, most Asians are non-combative, non-aggressive in their manner of communication. Singaporeans must get used to being more assertive and speak a little louder, figuratively speaking. Begin by being a strong champion and practising being what many firms claim to be on paper - equal opportunity employers.

The continuing challenge of discriminatory hiring practices can and should be straightened out as soon as possible. Singapore has an ageing population - this is a fact. The country must take the bull by the horns and come up with innovative, never-done-before initiatives, and try to make these work. Risk-taking may not be one of Singapore's key strengths - but let us all do a little more of this. CEOs should be more tolerant of failed initiatives. If we do not try, we will never know.

But first, Singaporeans need to move away from viewing job seekers in their 40s, 50s and 60s as "over the hill". Most of them are not, and are far from it. But judging from my experience in working with headhunters in supporting outplaced clients' efforts to get re-employed, I am convinced that Singapore is still far from being non-discriminatory.

Just last week, I spoke to two headhunters with client mandates that the HR professional they had been tasked with headhunting must not be over 50 years old. The clients may feel they have a valid reason. For example, the average age of their workforce is in the early 30s. But seriously, what is inappropriate about having a 58-year-old, aptly qualified and physically healthy HR professional who can deliver the goods, and who has kept in touch with the latest HR strategies on managing a multi-generational workforce?

The civil service, as one of the biggest employers in Singapore, must continue to be seen as setting the example. Only when the majority of employers think and behave in a non-discriminatory manner will Singapore continue to do well in business, and be respected as a country where meritocracy is the order of the day.

The Singapore National Employers Federation may not have very sharp teeth to use on its members. But I am not advocating such an approach anyway, for there are surely others. Another could be to secure strong champions (corporations as well as prominent business leaders), and work with them to influence other member companies.

Job seekers, in particular those who have lost their jobs involuntarily, must also acknowledge that they are responsible for their own careers. They should do all they need, and can, to secure re-employment, and stay employable. The Government has already done plenty - the rest is up to them. Singaporeans should not expect the Government to help each time they fall.

Investing in one's own knowledge and skills acquisition must become a norm. Those who continue to have a mindset that employers are responsible for paying for upgrading and training programmes are just not being realistic. The bottom line is that nobody owes us a job. It is important for Singaporeans to take control of their own careers.

My parting shot is to the headhunter who shortlisted a job seeker named May (not her real name) for a role with her client. The headhunter invited her to the office for an interview, and then removed her from the shortlist because May came in a wheelchair: Shame on you! It is important to mention here that May did indicate her physical challenges in her resume, and the headhunter had mentioned to May (prior to the meeting) that her experience came closest to her client's needs.

Clearly, Singapore has a long way to go when it comes to equal opportunity.

The writer is founder, managing director and an executive coach of the NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 5, 2014

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