In order for an organisation to address the issue of disadvantage in a systemic and consistent way, it needs to be guided by a policy. Increasingly, organisations are creating equal opportunity policies in order to guide managers in decision-making. The rationale for such policies can be based on a mix of justice and business sense arguments, as was noted above. The form of these policies varies from organisation to organisation, and the next section will explain why this is the case. Before this, it is necessary to make some general points about the purpose and forms of equal opportunity policies and to note some of the criticisms made of them.
The willingness of organisations to adopt such guidelines varies considerably. Moreover, there is also considerable variation in the extent to which all the points are adopted. You might think of this as a sliding scale: at one extreme are those organisations that adopt a policy that meets very few of the points, and at the other extreme those organizations that have addressed all ten points. Another way of looking at this is to think of different categories into which an organisation might be placed according to its approach to equal opportunities.
Types of equal opportunity organisation
Table is an example of this type of categorisation.
To ensure the effectiveness of equal opportunity policies, the organisation needs to adopt positive action initiatives and ensure that equal opportunity monitoring takes place. These two components are a feature of those organisations categorised as ‘proactive’, so they need some elaboration.
Equal opportunity policies are based on the notion of positive action (sometimes called affirmative action). These are specific initiatives designed to encourage underrepresented groups to apply for jobs or promotion within the organisation. They also might be concerned with making changes to working arrangements to encourage the retention of employees by making the environment more suited to the needs they have that differ from the majority of employees.
There are examples of such initiatives throughout this chapter, but to show the variety of positive action initiatives that might occur within a single organisation, consider the UK police force. There had been a government report on the police force, branding it as racist and criticising it for failing to have enough ethnic minority police officers. As a consequence, a range of initiatives was launched in various police forces throughout the UK, which included the following specific actions designed to improve the recruitment and retention of ethnic minorities:
Initiatives such as these are considered a central component in encouraging a more diverse workforce. However, it is not sufficient simply to put such actions into place; they have to be regularly audited to ensure they are working. In addition, it is often necessary for the organisation to collect data on the problem prior to the introduction of a particular initiative in order to be able to establish a benchmark and then assess the effect it is having. This is why equal opportunities monitoring is the second key component.
One of the key ways of helping to ensure the effectiveness of policies is through the use of equality monitoring. This is a process of systematically collecting and analysing data on the composition of the workforce, particularly with regard to recruitment and promotion. The rationale behind monitoring is that it is impossible for managers to make an assessment of what action to take (if any) unless they are aware of the current situation.
Of course, the supposition behind this is that managers want to take action – but if this is not the case then logically managers might not see the value in collecting the data in the first place. Therefore, equal opportunity monitoring has both advocates and detractors who will marshal different arguments to justify their position.
These are summarized in Table.
Naturally, there are some criticisms of equal opportunity policies. The first of these is that they are not worth the paper they are written on. Just because an organisation has a policy, it does not mean that the policy is effective. Indeed, it might be argued that in some organisations managers want to present the positive image of being aware of equal opportunities, but do not wish to introduce procedures or initiatives that might (in their opinion) constrain or limit their decisions about who to appoint, train, promote and so on.
A second criticism is that although equal opportunity policies result in formalized procedures with some organisations, this is no guarantee of fairness. Studies have shown that managers can find ways of evading or distorting the procedures. For example, in their case study of a local government authority in the UK, Liff and Dale (1994) interviewed a black woman on a clerical grade who had been told that she needed to get a professional qualification if she wanted promotion.
‘After obtaining the qualification she was turned down again, this time in favour of a white woman without qualification: a decision justified [by the managers] on the grounds of “positive action”’ (Liff and Dale, 1994: 187). In another study (Collinson et al., 1990), even the personnel/HR managers, who are supposedly the guardians and promoters of good practice, were colluding with line managers to avoid equal opportunity guidelines. A third criticism is that even where managers are working within the procedures, there is a huge amount of informal practice and discretion that means unfair treatment can persist. In the quote below, Liff (2002: 434) gives examples from two studies that show how this might occur during selection interviewing.
The arguments for and against monitoring
It will be noted that these three types of criticism are concerned with the ineffectiveness of equal opportunity policies. However, there are other critics who simply reject the whole idea of equal opportunities. They tend to suggest that policies are unnecessary and positive action initiatives are providing special privileges for particular groups. It is a viewpoint that is common among those of an extreme right-wing political persuasion and sometimes stems from a belief in the inferiority of some groups over others.
Within organisations it can manifest itself in the form of verbal abuse and harassment – in these extreme circumstances the issue is not simply an organisational concern, but might also be a criminal matter. A dramatic example of the way that such extreme views can cause misery for employees is the case of a Ford UK employee: Incidents such as this may be extreme but their existence makes the case for all organizations both to have an equal opportunity policy and to ensure that it is enforced through positive action initiatives and monitoring.
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