Why business owner who will never hire anyone religious is stupid

By March 10, 2017Current

TL;DR – Big elephant in the room.

There was an article on Vulcan Post contributed by a “business owner”. In that article, this “business owner” explained why he will never hire someone who is religious. He said:

” I’ll admit, if there is a person in a tudung, that’s a minus for me. It makes me think twice… Give me 2 fresh grads who have similar qualifications on paper, with the only difference being level of apparent religiosity, the choice is obvious.”

The “business owner” was quick to point out that he would feel the same way for a very religious practicing Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Sikh. The main justification of this “business owner” is that a religious person will somehow let his religiousness impede his ability to work. For instance, this person may need “special treatment or arrangements on company and business trips”, or he may not be able to “wine and dine” with important clients because of his religious convictions.

Sure, there may well be certain jobs which could be unsuitable for people who have certain religious convictions. For example, there are some jobs which require a person to drink a lot and eat “big fish big meat”. If your job is to clinch deals with some types of clients from China, then that’s really what you will need to do. A Buddhist who is a vegetarian and strictly doesn’t drink alcohol is definitely not a good fit for that kind of job.

And yes. If you are a Muslim lady and your religious conviction dictates that you have to wear a tudung, then you can forget about working as an air stewardess with SIA. No amount of writing to the press or on social media will get SIA to allow their air stewardess to wear tudung. All members of the crew will have to adhere to the airline’s uniform and code of conduct, including the way you dress at and during work.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone who are religious are unsuitable for those jobs. For instance, I am sure there are SIA air stewardesses who are very religious Muslims. Just that they don’t think it’s necessary to wear a tudung to be a good Muslim. And I’m sure there are religious Buddhists who make great sales and marketing officers and are able to close deals in China through their own ways.

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In other words, by basing his hiring decisions on stereotypes, that “business owner” will likely miss good opportunities to hire great people. And that is extremely stupid of that “business owner”. It’s illogical. It’s intellectually lazy.

That said, such stupidity is more common than we are willing to admit. Our brains are wired to be intellectually lazy. A landmark paper by Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, explained how people often use mental shortcuts when making decisions. Biases and stereotypes are examples of these mental shortcuts.

Don’t believe? Take this example:

Linda is young, single, outspoken, and very bright, who, as a student, was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice. She regularly attends meetings where people discuss ways to advocate for gender equality. Which of the following do you think is likelier:

  1. Linda is a bank teller; OR
  2. Linda is a bank teller and a feminist

What do you think? 1 or 2? When presented with the above question, most people would think that it is more likely for Linda to be a bank teller and a feminist. If you thought so, then you would be wrong. All feminist bank tellers are bank tellers. But not all bank tellers are feminists. Therefore there are more bank tellers than there are feminist bank tellers. So it’s likelier for Linda to be a bank teller than a feminist bank teller.

To come to the correct conclusion in the “Linda problem” requires us to not be intellectually lazy. The fact that most people get it wrong demonstrates that most people are intellectually lazy and therefore prone to being biased and making decisions based on stereotypes. This is all the more so if we are under intellectual strain, or facing time pressure.

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So perhaps the reason this “business owner” has to resort to such a stupid way of screening job applicants because he is busy, short on time, and there are too many demands on his brainpower. It’s something that could happen to anyone of us. That said, it’s still not right.

That’s why we need to constantly guard against intellectual laziness so that we don’t make decisions based on stereotypes. We need to constantly remind ourselves to do our best to comprehensively assess job applicants on whether they are are good fits to the company and able to perform in their job. Anything else is noise and should be disregarded.

That’s not only the moral thing to do, it’s also the smarter thing to do. To do anything else is being stupid.

Singapore is a multi-racial society and we have Singaporeans practising different religions, and we should respect that. There is talent (as there are also black sheep) in every pocket of our population. Business owners, and HR practitioners for that matter, should not deprive themselves of talents just because they’re lazy. Or stupid. Or both.

Meanwhile, Vulcan Post has explained why they’d published the article. And oh, we also found out that the article was published by their Malaysian office, and that the contribution’s from a Malaysia. Nonetheless, we believe such practices happen here in Singapore too.

As for us, we’re glad the people at Vulcan Post decided to publish it. After all, if it’s happening, it’s best not to ignore the elephant in the room. We’re of the view it’s better to get it out and hear everyone out. Perhaps with perspectives from others, we can all learn something new.


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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