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NDR 2021: Bosses welcome spirit of upcoming anti-discrimination law but worry disgruntled workers may abuse it

SINGAPORE — Some business leaders said they are concerned that the impending move to enshrine a set of guidelines on workplace discrimination into law could open firms up to unjustified legal complaints from disgruntled workers, who may make false claims about discrimination.

Businesses generally welcome the anti-discrimination laws proposed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally address on Aug 29, 2021.

Businesses generally welcome the anti-discrimination laws proposed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally address on Aug 29, 2021.

  • Some business leaders worry that unhappy workers may use a proposed new law to accuse their employers of discriminating against them
  • Others wonder if it might cause hiring managers to focus on diversity rather than merit when hiring jobseekers 
  • Still, they agreed the law will force employers to address any issues of discrimination in their companies

 

SINGAPORE — Some business leaders said they are concerned that the impending move to enshrine a set of guidelines on workplace discrimination into law could open firms up to unjustified legal complaints from disgruntled workers, who may make false claims about discrimination.

Still, they said that the introduction of such a law is in the right spirit, and it should not affect most companies that already abide by the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which have been around for some time.

The guidelines were launched in 2007 and amended in 2011 to include hiring and developing a Singaporean core in the workforce.

The proposed new law was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Aug 29) during his National Day Rally speech.

Although he did not state when it will take effect, Mr Lee said that it will protect workers against discrimination based on nationality, age, race, gender and disability — by giving the authorities more teeth and by expanding the range of actions they can take against errant companies.

‘GENUINE WORRY’

As the finer details of the law are still unknown, Delphic Manufacturing Solutions' director Tan Ru-Ding said that it needs to be “enforced with care, and not cause companies to worry that they will be taken to court just for making managerial decisions”.

For instance, if a worker of a particular demographic gets dismissed for poor performance, he questioned if it would be possible for that individual to turn it around and claim that he was discriminated against by the company instead.

“It is a genuine worry,” Mr Tan said.

Another concern is whether the law, once introduced, might stifle the hiring of the right talent in Singapore.

Dr Michael Heng, the director of recruitment agency PeopleWorldwide, said that the United States, for example, has a number of anti-discrimination laws that were necessary due to the nation’s history of discrimination against minorities.

“The law injected extra variables to be considered while hiring, which I don’t agree with,” he said. “Hiring should always be based on merit.”

However, Dr Heng said that this may not always be possible because there is a need to ensure the workplace is inclusive and diverse, so selection choices are made on these two factors even if candidates do not possess the right skills.

Mr Mayank Parekh, chief executive officer of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals, said that the tripartite partners — the unions, employers and the Government — had previously rejected turning the guidelines into law because they were worried that it might make a company’s environment “too legalistic”.

“Now that some of these guidelines are going to be made into law, does it mean that every time there is disagreement (between a worker and an employer), it will go to court?

“We certainly don't want that to happen, because it creates a lot of animosity at the company level,” he said.

In his rally speech, Mr Lee said that a new tribunal will be set up to deal with cases that fall under the new law, though legal redress should be considered only as a “last recourse”.

ADDRESSING DISCRIMINATION

Their concerns aside, four business leaders approached by TODAY, who come from disparate sectors that include manufacturing and technology, said that they do not foresee the new law causing any problems for their respective firms because they already have policies in place to tackle discrimination.

Mr James Lim, chief executive officer of the business-to-consumer department at home services technology company Helpling, said that technology start-ups such as his are generally progressive and diverse.

“Millennials are generally more inclusive and open to people from different genders, races and backgrounds,” he added.

Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, said that this was also the case for most of the members in his association.

For those who do not, they tend to be “older entrepreneurs”, he noted.

Although these entrepreneurs may come across as discriminatory in their hiring processes by preferring a certain ethnic group, he said that it does not stem from a place of malice.

“Most of the time when there is a preference, it’s because of the language. And when there is a language need, that’s fine. That’s not discrimination,” Mr Wee said.

Dr Heng said that family-runned businesses may also prefer to engage people they know for trust reasons, and not because they hold anything against others.

And sometimes, managers within the workplace may not even be aware of their internal bias, Mr Tan from Delphic Manufacturing Solutions said.

For instance, he has come across managers who may not consider giving a position to someone of a particular race on the basis that the candidate may not get along with a Chinese-speaking team.

“Only after I called it out, did (they) pause to reconsider.” 

Those interviewed by TODAY generally said that the upcoming law would lend credibility to internal company policies against discrimination, and would also force the companies to address issues about it.

One human resource director, Mr Chan, who declined to reveal his full name as he does not have permission to speak to the media, said that it will force companies “to be more aware of their processes”.

To avoid running into any legal trouble, Mr Chan, who has more than 20 years of business experience, said that companies will have to “tighten up their administrative processes” by ensuring that all their documentation is in order to prevent false accusations.

POTENTIAL LOOPHOLES

Even when the law comes into force, Mr Lim foresees that there will be loopholes that might be hard to address.

For instance, companies will be required to word their job vacancies in a non-discriminatory way, but the hiring manager may still hold some form of bias.

Mr Chan agreed with this sentiment, adding that companies will not be required to give the reasons why they selected someone over another. Moreover, they could include other candidates to give the impression of a fair hiring process.

Dr Heng suggested that for companies that can afford to, an interview panel may be ideal. Not only does this prevent an individual from having too much sway in the hiring decision, it also protects the company against false accusations.

In instances of complaints, investigators can compare notes from the interviewers and see whether there is any merit in it, he added.

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NDR 2021 workplace discrimination Lee Hsien Loong Jobs law employer

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