The photo requirement on job applications illustrates rampant discrimination on the job market, which many applicants feel powerless to combat.

Fines Won’t Change Discrimination in Job Search

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A fresh graduate from university, looking to land his or her first full-time job, has a number of steps to go through. Scouring job boards for openings, painstakingly editing and re-editing her resume, and, of course, going to a studio for a professional profile photo to attach to the application form. If this last one doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you’ve never applied for a job in corporate South Korea.

Including a photo is just the beginning. It’s common for application forms to ask for job applicants’ age directly (or indirectly, by asking for the year they graduated from university). Physical characteristics such as height and weight are also included in many forms, as are the candidate’s medical history and marital status.

Some of these questions make sense if you’re looking to hire a model or a volleyball player, but these forms are for everyday people applying for everyday jobs. Mr. Kim’s height isn’t going to tell you if he’s right for accounts receivable. Showing how pervasive this senseless practice is, a report last year found that nearly half of the major conglomerates asked for parents’ occupations or similar information about family members. That report reviewed application forms from 28 of the top 30 companies.

Another report made public last month by the country’s human rights commission went much further and looked at over 3,500 application forms. They found that age and appearance were each asked for over 90% of the time. Many forms also asked for birthplace, marital status and religion. Over half of these application forms were from public companies or branches of the government, and overall, 80% of forms included at least four types of discriminatory questions. The top ten are listed below.

Categories of discriminatory questions and how frequently each appeared. ‘Schooling’ refers to educational attainment and which university one graduated from. ‘Appearance’ includes photographs and physical traits such as height and weight.
Source: National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). Original report available here [Korean].

Not just a source of embarrassment

In some cultural contexts, these questions might be inconsequential – embarrassing but not likely to impact hiring decisions – but that’s not the case here.

University students find ways to stretch out their undergrad degrees, knowing that for entry-level positions many employers only hire recent graduates. Young, married women often lie about their marital status, knowing that companies assume married women without children will quit if they have children. Men who didn’t complete regular military service (even those with valid exemptions) know that they’ll be looked down on by male hiring staff.

In addition to professionally airbrushed profile photos, there’s a trend of getting plastic surgery for the sake of improving one’s job prospects. The cosmetic surgery clinics know this and tells job seekers that appearance is one way to get a leg up on the competition, fueling already intense lookism. Some companies are also known to hire physiognomists (‘face readers’) to assess a candidate’s personality and aptitude through their appearance, adding to the pressure to surgically alter one’s facial appearance.

It’s bad if you grew up outside of Seoul, in the regions collectively referred to as jibang, but it’s a lot worse if you graduated from a jibang university.

Discrimination is rife in South Korea, and through these questions the job search process becomes an experience where applicants are subjected to a concentrated form of this unfairness, all at once. And you thought your job interviews were stressful.

These unfair application questions are recognized within the country as a major issue in the typical hiring process. Year after year, NGOs issue reports, journalists write stories, the NHRCK issues statements condemning the practice, and job seekers themselves complain about being subjected to often humiliating questions in an already high-pressure situation.

Yet, in the rigidly hierarchical world of South Korean business, employers still act with impunity and applicants feel they have to endure it. To not do as they’re told is to count themselves out of a job.

Is there a solution?

How do you tackle an issue like this that exists at a societal level? The go-to response for social ills is often laws. More laws, stricter laws, tougher regulations, more government monitoring.

A recently proposed law is an example of exactly that approach. It seeks to make asking discriminatory questions on application forms – including requiring photos – illegal and a fineable offense. In this spirit, others have suggested making companies have government-approved application forms or using a standard application form provided by the government.

If you find yourself doubting whether these policies would actually be effective, you’re not alone. There’s nothing stopping companies from asking these discriminatory questions during an in-person interview. The government wants to effect a culture change in how companies recruit – and I’m fully behind them on that – but in reality the proposed law just encourages companies to ask these types of questions one step later in the recruitment process. These policies are also limited by how aggressive the government chooses to be in its enforcement.

To outside observers, there seems to be an easy solution – just don’t answer the questions. Politely but firmly tell the interviewer that you don’t see how the question relates to the job and ask them to move on to the next question. An awareness campaign could tell job seekers what types of questions they shouldn’t answer and let employers know what to expect so they’re not taken by surprise during an interview. It’s a straightforward, bottom-up solution that would give applicants the power to refuse. Government officials can’t directly monitor every aspect of the recruitment process, after all.

This tack is essentially a human rights approach. Empower people by informing them of their rights – backed by international law – and encouraging them to exercise those rights and demand fair treatment.

It’s tempting to think this could work. But in fact, this strategy ignores many of the realities of modern South Korea.

The high youth unemployment rate and the intense competition among highly qualified candidates certainly contribute to applicants’ not wanting to say anything that might jeopardize their shot at landing a job, but let’s put that aside for now.

Applicants know that providing personal information is discriminatory, as the multitude of reports and newspaper articles attest. One report talked to over 500 people and found that 70% felt discriminated against during job search. The problem is that they feel powerless to question the practice, and employers often don’t see the line between job-related questions and questions that violate privacy.

As one hiring manager who spoke on condition of anonymity put it, from a social and cultural point of view, refusing to answer an interviewer’s questions is unthinkably rude.

In additional to the cultural expectations of polite deference to seniors in age or rank , South Korean workplace culture often involves strict hierarchies. You’re expected to be loyal, follow orders, and not talk back to your superiors. Not answering an interviewer’s question could also embarrass him or her in front of colleagues – a slight that wouldn’t be taken lightly.

But maybe, instead of refusing to answer questions, job seekers are instead refusing the idea that they have to wait for companies to catch up with the expectations of the younger generations. If you’ve talked to many young South Koreans, a surprising number want to find work in other countries. Or worse, they’ve given up on working altogether, joining a group dubbed NEETs, short for “Not in Education, Employment or Training,” who make up roughly 15% of the youth population, or almost double the OECD average.

Slapping companies with fines is a surface-level change that won’t accomplish much. What the younger generations want is a cultural shift, but that doesn’t come overnight and certainly not without someone championing the cause.

This then brings us around to the oft-discussed passing of an anti-discrimination law — which South Korea still lacks. It’s true that, under South Korean law, UN conventions hold the status as domestic laws. This fact, though, is not one that’s ever acknowledged in local court cases. Passing a domestic anti-discrimination bill would go a long way to beginning that culture shift that international treaties have failed to achieve. It could create an atmosphere where the “just don’t answer” approach described earlier would actually work. For today’s job seekers though, this would come much too late. They’ll have to forgo the mainstream job search process entirely, or start preparing for a trip to the photo studio.

Cover Image: The photo requirement on job applications illustrates rampant discrimination on the South Korean job market, with many applicants feeling powerless to fight back.

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