x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bias in advertising is bad for business

The wording of job advertisements, and the meanings behind those words, have implications for the way we think about, and deal with, other people.

In difficult economic times, businesses are especially keen to recruit people with precisely the right set of skills. But for some UAE-based businesses, the right set of skills includes the right set of physical attributes.

As The National reported yesterday, some job adverts on local recruitment websites use discriminatory language: specifying, for example, that female applicants must be “attractive”, or that only certain nationalities need apply.

It is impossible to generalise about the UAE based on half a dozen adverts: Dubizzle has nearly 20,000 jobs listed currently, to say nothing of other job sites, and the company has said explicitly that any adverts excluding particular nationalities would be taken down.

And no one is naive enough to imagine that people are never hired for any other reason besides their qualifications. Everywhere in the world, when two equally qualified candidates present themselves for an interview, how they look, speak and act are taken into consideration, as is whether they will “fit in” at the company. That’s why racism and sexism have proven so hard to eradicate from the professional sphere.

But there are strong reasons, for businesses and society, why such language is unnecessary and even harmful.

For businesses looking to recruit the best employees, it makes sense to cast the net as widely as possible. If there are specific language requirements – Arabic, for example, or Tagalog – then certain nationalities will probably be over-represented. But Arabic is spoken by many people from many nations; for businesses, it would be better to interview the most qualified candidates, regardless of their countries of origin.

Moreover, such language in job adverts entrenches the idea of casual discrimination, making it possible to talk about people – Egyptians or Canadians or Emiratis – as if they form definitive groups and all share the same traits. That, of course, is called stereotyping. Gender-based recruiting also implies that some jobs are better done by men than women, or vice versa.

There are exceptions, of course, when there is a clear social good to be served – Emiratisation, for example, privileges citizens for certain jobs  as part of the national development trajectory.

It is clear that attitudes are already changing, as employers and individuals come to realise that what is bad for society is also bad for business. And, of course, it is attitudes that must change.