Institutional discrimination HR Management

One of the key issues that managers must face is whether their organisation operates in ways that are fundamentally discriminatory. This is sometimes referred to as institutional racism, institutional sexism, institutional homophobia and so on. The term means that rather than discrimination being seen simply as the actions of individuals, it is deeprooted in the processes and culture of the organisation. Examples of processes that are sometimes described as evidence of institutional discrimination are:

  • word-of-mouth methods for recruitment;
  • dress codes that prevent people practising their religious beliefs;
  • promotions based on informal recommendations, rather than open competition;
  • informal assessments rather than formal appraisals;
  • assumptions about training capabilities;
  • assumptions about language difficulties and attitudes.

Often these types of processes are not recognised as being discriminatory and have been in operation for many years. It is only when a company is faced with a legal challenge that such practices are seen to be having a discriminatory impact. Managers should regularly scrutinise organisational procedures, and the use of data collected through equal opportunity monitoring can be particularly effective in highlighting areas where the processes might be disadvantaging particular groups.

Just as pernicious are workplace cultures that have the effect of excluding people from particular social groups by making them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. This is a key issue for managers because organisations might have cultures that are long established and deeply embedded. An interesting review of the way organisational cultures can marginalize social groups is provided by Kirton and Greene (2000: 76–93). Most notable among their conclusions are the following points:

  • Organisational cultures are infused with gendered meanings, which are often unarticulated and thus rendered invisible. The gendered hierarchy is an example, as are various unwritten codes, rules, customs and habits which guide gendered behavior and underpin expectations of organisational members.
  • Sexual harassment and the use of sexual humour are pervasive and the outcome of workplace gendered social relations, which are powerful mechanisms for the control and subordination of women.
  • Stereotypes (based on gender, race, disability, sexual orientation and age) are reinforced through jokes and humour, leading to negative organisational experiences for some people.
  • Non-disabled people’s lack of contact with disability reinforces their fear and ignorance surrounding the issue.
  • Problems with institutional discrimination

The first problem is inertia. Even when institutional discrimination has been identified, there is no incentive to make changes because those people in positions of influence have benefited (and continue to benefit) from the system. Furthermore, those people most likely to change policies within the organisation (the ‘victims’ of discrimination) are denied access to decision-making processes.

The second problem is with the concept of institutional discrimination itself. Some critics argue that it can lead to a tendency to blame ‘the system’, rather than focusing on the people who shape and sustain the system. In some circumstances this can be helpful because by removing blame from individuals it might be easier to encourage action to address the problem. In other circumstances it can result in nothing being done because no one is deemed responsible or held accountable.

In defence of the concept of institutional discrimination, it can be argued that it alerts people to the way that the fundamental structures and processes can be detrimental to equality and diversity, and that unless action is taken to address these fundamentals, nothing will improve. This is an important point because it suggests that in many instances the drive to equality and diversity requires some radical changes, rather than just equal opportunity statements and positive action initiatives.

  • The need for radical changes: the long agenda

The existence of institutional discrimination leads some commentators to argue that fundamental change is needed if the elimination of disadvantage is to be achieved. Foremost among these commentators is Cockburn (1989, 1991) who has pointed out that many of the equal opportunity initiatives adopted by managers in organisations are concerned only with the short term. Typically, these initiatives are fixing current problems, responding to outside pressures, or perhaps seeking to make a pre-emptive move to impress customers and clients. This ignores the possibilities of more radical, long-term initiatives that might fundamentally change the structures and processes that produce disadvantage.

The proposition forwarded by Cockburn is that as well as this short agenda (with its laudable aim of eliminating bias) there is the need to consider the long agenda. This would be a challenging project of organisational transformation, requiring fundamental changes to the processes, roles, norms, attitudes and relationships within organisations. Cockburn (1989: 218) explains:

The obvious problem for enacting the long agenda is that those in positions of influence within organisations have little incentive to make changes that might challenge their own power and dominance. The long agenda therefore has to be led by activists and advocates. This might be through committed individuals within organisations, but it would also require collective voice and action.

It might also require a political context that encourages a more active approach by organisations to ensuring equality of opportunity

  • through, for example, compulsory monitoring or employment quotas for disadvantaged groups.

As such it brings into view the nature and purpose of institutions and the processes by which the power of some groups over others in institutions is built and renewed. It acknowledges the needs of disadvantaged groups for access to power. [...] But it also looks for change in the nature of power, in the control ordinary people of diverse kinds have over institutions, a melting away of the white male monoculture.


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