It has been noted above that equal opportunity policies are seen as desirable and that recommendations are often made to organisations about how to frame such policies. Ultimately, however, it is up to the decision makers within organisations to choose the form and content of their policies – although there might be certain legal requirements within which they are expected to operate. When formulating policy, managers are faced with addressing the key question of how to treat people at work in order to ensure fairness.
To express this more specifically: to ensure fairness, should managers ignore the differences between people and treat them the same, or should managers acknowledge differences and treat people differently? In many respects this is a key question that lies at the heart of any discussion about equality of opportunity. The reason why people often vehemently disagree about equal opportunities is because they are approaching the issue from very different perspectives.
In other words, if you believe that, for example, men and women, or different ethnic groups, are fundamentally (as human beings) the same, then you are approaching the issues from an alternative perspective to someone who sees people as fundamentally different. These differing perspectives also lead to different ways of dealing with the issue of ensuring fairness at work. It is therefore important to understand the two perspectives and look at the organisational initiatives that each might lead towards.
Mr Parma suffered years of routine abuse by his foreman and his team leader. Once, he opened his sealed pay packet to find the word ‘Paki’ scrawled inside. In another incident, he saw graffiti threatening to throw him to his death.[...] On one occasion he was ordered into the ‘punishment cell’, a small booth in which oil is sprayed over engines, but he was not allowed to wear protective clothing. He became ill and needed medical attention.On another occasion Mr Parma had his lunch kicked out of his hands and was told: ‘We’re not having any of that Indian shit in here.’
He was also warned that he would have his legs broken if he ever named any of his tormentors. The police were called in at one stage, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop charges. (The Independent, 24 September 1999)
A word of warning is needed here. This concept of ‘sameness’ acknowledges genuine differences between people, but means that the variations of attributes such as intelligence, potential to develop skills, values, emotions, and so forth are distributed across different social groups. Consequently, it is argued that any differences between people on these attributes are not determined by their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and so forth, but arise from their upbringing, experiences, socialisation and other contextual factors.
Therefore, the important guiding principle for managers is that people should be treated equally regardless of their sex, ethnic group, age and so forth. Below are a few examples of the kinds of practices that this perspective might lead organisations to adopt:
The guiding policy behind these types of initiative is equal treatment. Obviously, any such organisational initiatives are influenced by the legal context in which the organization is based. There is likely to be legislation that requires organisations to undertake some actions. For instance, in the UK the legislation sets some of the parameters in the recruitment process in terms and conditions of employment and in reward systems.
There is a substantial problem with this sameness approach. It assumes that disadvantage arises because people are not treated the same. While this is sometimes the case, disadvantage can also arise due to treating people the same when their differences ought to be considered. This is eloquently summed up by Liff and Wajcman (1996: 81) in relation to gender:
The ‘difference’ perspective assumes that key differences exist between people and that these should be taken into account when managers are making decisions. In other words, it can be argued that ignoring differences can lead to disadvantage. Again there is a word of warning. There tend to be two strands to this perspective and this must be taken into account: (1) the collectivist strand; (2) the individualist strand.
This approach argues that the differences are associated with the social groups to which a person belongs. For example, as the quote above from Liff and Wajcman (1996) underlines, women’s domestic responsibilities are different in general from those of men – most notably in the time spent on childcare – so, to ignore this difference will disadvantage women. For instance, imagine a job had the following statement as part of the essential requirements: ‘Applicants must have at least five years’ previous experience of international sales and be aged between 28 and 35.’
These requirements would have a disadvantageous effect for women because (based on the uneven division of childcare responsibilities) a lower proportion of women would be able to meet the condition of being under 35 and having 5 years of relevant experience. This is due to the fact that more women than men would have taken career breaks to have children and rear children. Therefore, by ignoring the differences between men and women the requirements are disadvantaging women.
In the UK this could be construed as ‘indirect discrimination’, which means instances where there might be no intention to discriminate against a particular group but where the effect is discriminatory because certain conditions have been set down that advantage or disadvantage some groups over others. The collectivist strand therefore argues that differences between social groups exist and should be considered in relation to ensuring fairness at work.
This means that it might be relevant to introduce practices that are based on recognising differences between social groups, rather than ignoring differences. Below are some examples of the types of initiatives that might arise from taking this collectivist difference perspective:
The guiding policy behind these types of initiative is special treatment according to social group membership. Such initiatives are usually described as ‘positive action’ or ‘affirmative action’. There is a wide range of such initiatives, the most extreme sort being quotas that set a requirement for organisations to recruit and promote a specific percentage of people from disadvantaged groups. Setting quotas is the most extreme form of positive action initiative, and in the UK, as in other European countries, it is unlawful.
The other forms of positive action – such as those listed above – are permissible in many countries. Again the legal context is important because some principles, such as equal value, might be a legal requirement for all organisations, while others are left entirely to the discretion of managers within organisations. One of the notable problems with this perspective is that it leads some people to argue that special treatment constitutes an unfair advantage.
There is a tendency among critics to emphasise the extreme examples, and there has been considerable backlash to some affirmative action programs in the United States where quotas are set for organisations to recruit and promote ethnic minorities. Some of this criticism is politically driven, but it also comes from some of the supposed benefactors of positive discrimination, particular ethnic minorities. These critics argue that it demeans their achievements because it leads others to suspect that they only got the job or promotion to meet the required ‘quota’, rather than because they were the best candidate.
Furthermore, some commentators argue that it is simply wrong in principle to redress the disadvantage suffered by one group of people because of favouritism and privilege with measures that are specifically designed to favour and privilege an alternative group of people. Indeed, this is the perspective of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, who use the term ‘reverse discrimination’ to describe extreme measures such as quota systems.
Although the policy of special treatment presents some problems, it also offers a persuasive approach for some people because it recognises that disadvantage is often an intrinsic part of existing organisational structures, practices and culture. Simply adopting a policy of equal treatment would not remove this existing disadvantage; instead, something more radical has to be done to get to the root of the problem and redress the existing imbalance.
One of the best expressions of this comes from former US President Lyndon Johnson at the time of the introduction of race legislation in 1965: Before reading about the second strand of this difference approach, you might want to see a further illustration of how sameness and difference can lead to alternative interpretations of workplace issues.
The second way of looking from a difference perspective can be called the individualist strand because the main focus is the individual rather than the social group. This approach emphasises the individuality of all employees. People have unique strengths and weaknesses, abilities and needs. Therefore it is not important to focus on characteristics that associate people with a particular group – for instance, their sex or whether they have a disability – rather it is their individuality that becomes the central pertinent issue.
A label that is often associated with this approach is ‘managing diversity’. It is increasingly being used by organisations as a term to describe their approach to ensure fairness and opportunities for all. However, a particular problem is that the term ‘managing diversity’ can have various meanings. It has become one of those widely used management phrases, so can mean different things in different organisations. At one extreme it is simply a synonym for ‘equal opportunities’ – used because the latter is seen as old-fashioned or backward looking – and therefore has no distinct or special meaning of its own.
At the other extreme, managing diversity represents a new approach to dealing with disadvantage at work. A notable example of the new approach based on recognising individual differences is Kandola and Fullerton (1994). They argue that managing diversity is superior to previous approaches to equality at work for five reasons:
Below are some examples of the types of initiatives that might arise from taking this individualist difference perspective.
The guiding policy behind these types of initiative is special treatment according to individual needs. Of course, this approach has its critics, and in particular three objections can by raised.
In practice, this extends opportunities only to a selective number of individuals whose competencies are in short supply or have been identified as being of particular value. So far, two perspectives (sameness and difference) have been identified and compared. To help you conceptualise this, Figure puts it in diagrammatic form.
As has been shown in the discussion above, disadvantage can arise by treating people the same or by treating people differently, so any policy that emphasises one perspective more than the other runs the risk of leaving some disadvantages unchecked.
What is called for is a mixed policy that recognises that to eliminate disadvantage it is necessary in some circumstances to treat people the same, and in other circumstances to treat people differently. Of course, this is a challenge in itself because in what circumstances do you apply one criterion and not the other? For example, imagine the following situation. A woman applies for a job as an adviser selling financial products in a company that is dominated by men.
Scenario 1: she has the same qualifications and experience as male applicants, but the all-male selection panel might reject her because they consider that she would not ‘fit in’ with the competitive, aggressive culture of the organisation.
The perspectives of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’
Scenario 2: she has the same qualifications as male applicants but has taken a career break for childcare purposes. The selection panel reject her because compared with men of the same age she has less work experience.In the first scenario the panel are rejecting her by using the criterion of difference (recognising gender); in the second by using the criterion of sameness (ignoring gender). But if the panel were to reverse their logic of difference and sameness, it might lead them to different conclusions.
In the first scenario, if the panel ignored gender, they would arrive at the conclusion that she was appointable. In the second scenario, if they recognized that, because of her gender, she has had extra domestic commitments so cannot be compared with men of the same age, then again they might conclude she is appointable. This illustrates that managers have a key role in dealing with disadvantage because they determine the criteria and define the circumstances in which sameness and difference are either recognised or ignored.
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