IBM’s job application gaffe holds an important lesson for all employers

IBM's job application gaffe holds an important lesson for all employees

There’s an important lesson for organizations of all sizes in a recent embarrassment for one of the world’s best-known companies – check your job postings carefully before they go up on the internet!

Questions about race and ethnicity are commonly included on U.S.-based company’s application forms to help companies track diversity and comply with affirmative action requirements. But an IBM application included terms that startled the applicant. The pull-down menu for the required field “Ethnic Group” displayed categories including “mullatto” and “yellow.”

The applicant, who is an Asian-American, tweeted about his experience, and included a screen shot of the web application form, saying “@ibm applied for a job on your career site. Aren’t these ethnic group labels a little antiquated? To make matters worse, I couldn’t submit my application w/o selecting an option. I ended up selecting “Yellow” and “Coloured.”

Lost in translation?

IBM responded a day later by apologizing and saying the job posting had been copied and translated from similar postings intended for positions in other countries. The company said that the categories included on the posting are required by the governments in Brazil and South Africa for census and other uses.

IBM replaced the questions from its application form to reflect U.S. standard terms including American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African-American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White. The revised application also gives applicants the  the option to refuse to provide an ethnic identifier.

Like other global companies, IBM must localize content to comply with a wider variety of regulations and cultural norms than most businesses when designing its job applications and other forms. But every organization can avoid a similar error – and, potentially, public embarrassment – by ensuring that all job postings and other public docs are reviewed carefully before they go live.

Tim McElgunn
Tim, a member of the HRMorning staff, is a veteran writer and editor. His background includes producing and managing publications for Bloomberg, Frost & Sullivan, Gartner Group and McGraw-Hill.