The process of discrimination in an organisation HR Management

The discussion so far has explored many of the complex and sometimes contradictory issues surrounding equality and diversity. It makes sense to bring this together by considering the range of pressures and influences that are brought to bear when managing equality and diversity. Figure is a flowchart that maps the relationship between the key components and thereby shows how the process of discrimination occurs in organizations (Noon and Blyton, 2002). Each of the components of this flowchart is discussed in this section, and is linked with many of the issues raised in the earlier part of the chapter.

At the centre of the process lie two vital questions: what should be the basis of any specific policy, and is the policy fair? Try to envisage this in terms of specific policies, such as promotion, awarding of merit pay, entitlement to career development opportunities, and so on. The first question is of vital concern to managers since their decisions are going to shape a particular policy. However, as the diagram shows, such decisions are not made in isolation but are subject to a range of influences: personal influences (beliefs, values and political agenda), external pressures and organisational pressures:

  1. Personal influences. A manager will have his or her individual beliefs and values that fundamentally guide behaviour and influence decisions. So, for instance, a strong belief in social justice is going to affect the choices that a manager makes, as is a particular prejudice or stereotype about a social group.

    Combined with this is the individual political agenda of the manager, which might moderate the values and beliefs in some way. For example, a male manager might believe that women do not make good leaders but knows that in order to get promotion he must suppress this view in order not to alienate his boss – who is a woman.

    This, of course, is the realpolitik of normal organisational life and will operate at all levels. This intermixing of beliefs, values and political manoeuvring is going to have an influence on the manager’s decisions.

    The process of discrimination in an organisation

    The process of discrimination in an organisation
  2. External pressures. In addition to these personal pressures, the manager is faced with external pressure. This could be legislation requiring (or prohibiting) certain action, public opinion, customer or client pressure, supplier influence, labour supply issues, and so forth. For instance, it was noted in the discussion about the business case how organisations might adopt equal opportunity initiatives in order to improve their public image, or access a wider customer base.
  3. Internal organisational pressures. The final set of pressures comes from within the organisation. They might arise from other managers, employees (especially through satisfaction surveys and grievances), trade unions, works councils, and so forth.

There might also be pressure as a result of data collected within the organisation. For example, high levels of employee turnover might encourage positive action initiatives that help to retain employees, develop and make better use of skills, and provide a more supportive and encouraging environment. In addition, there are likely to be pressures because of the workplace culture and traditions of the organisation – the sorts of issues that were discussed in the section on institutional discrimination.

These combined pressures establish the context in which decisions are made about specific policies within the organisation. As was noted earlier in the chapter, managers must make choices between people and therefore criteria have to be used to differentiate people. For example, imagine you are running a recruitment process and have received a pile of application forms. In deciding your shortlisting policy (that is, who to call for an interview), you might use the criteria of qualifications and previous experience as a way of choosing between applicants.

Those who meet the minimum requirements are interviewed, those who do not are rejected. At the same time, you might think that age and ethnic group are irrelevant and so you do not take this into account when shortlisting the applicants. Hence your shortlisting policy is based on ‘difference’ with regard to qualifications and experience, and ‘sameness’ with regard to ethnic group and age. There is nothing wrong with this mixture – it reflects the possibility of combining principles of sameness and difference.

The consequence of this combination is that whether someone is black or white, old or young, they get equal treatment, but if they have a university degree and relevant previous work experience they will get treated more favourably (in this instance, shortlisted) compared with someone without a degree or with inappropriate previous experience. Logically, this raises the question of whether this is fair (note the next stage in the flowchart). If you think such a shortlisting policy is fair then you are likely to be in agreement with the decisions about the criteria for equal and special treatment. However, if you think this is unfair, this might be because you feel:

  • equal treatment was applied inappropriately (for example, age should have been taken into account) and/or
  • special treatment was given inappropriately (for example, previous experience should not have been taken into account).

If you were an employee in the organisation then this feeling of unfairness might simply produce a feeling of discontent. On the other hand, it might drive you to take action such as voicing your opinion to managers, going to the trade union, discussing the issue with other employees or leaving. This in turn might produce internal organizational pressures on future decisions (shown by the feedback loop in Figure).

Mapping out the process in this way reveals that every managerial decision over appointments, promotions, allocation of work, merit pay, training opportunities and so forth is likely to be met with a variety of responses: some individuals and groups will interpret the decision as fair and others as unfair, depending on whether they consider the equal or special treatment to be justifiable. The extent to which employees concern themselves with issues of fairness will vary according to the circumstances and is likely to reflect whether they are directly involved with, or affected by, the outcome.

Concluding comment

It can be seen from the preceding sections that managing equality and diversity is about making choices between various courses of action. It was also shown that there are competing viewpoints as to why particular approaches should be taken. In many instances there is no clear-cut right or wrong method – rather it is a matter of judgement and conscience. What is important, however, is that any action or policy is backed up by a clear rationale. Obviously, this chapter cannot conclude by recommending a particular approach because it depends on whether you are persuaded by the rationale behind that approach.

The chapter’s purpose has been to show you the approaches and provide you with an understanding of the key concepts and dilemmas. These should allow you to make your own choices and equip you to predict and challenge opposing viewpoints. The summary provides you with a review of the key points to reflect upon in forming your opinions.


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