Why be concerned with equality and diversity? HR Management

A key question that needs to be addressed is why managers should care whether some people are disadvantaged and suffer unfair treatment. In answering this question, it is useful to distinguish between two different sets of arguments, which can be labelled ‘the social justice case’ and ‘the business case’.

  • The social justice case

The social justice case is that managers have a moral obligation to treat employees with fairness and dignity. Part of this involves ensuring that decisions are made without resorting to prejudice and stereotypes. You may already be familiar with these concepts, but in case not, they can be defined as follows. If decisions are made free from prejudice and stereotyping then there is a lower risk of any particular group being disadvantaged and therefore less chance of an individual feeling that he or she has been discriminated against.

Discrimination is very much a core concept for the social justice case so its meaning needs to be considered. ‘Discrimination’ is the process of judging people according to particular criteria. For example, in the selection process for a teaching post, the appointment panel might discriminate in favour of a candidate who answers their questions clearly and concisely, and discriminate against a candidate who mutters and digresses from the point. However, when most people use the term discrimination they tend to mean unfair discrimination.

The word is mainly used to denote that the criteria on which the discrimination has occurred are unjust. It is likely that most people would not describe the example above as ‘discrimination’ because they would not consider the criteria the panel used (clarity, conciseness) as unfair. However, if the criterion the appointment panel used to choose between candidates was gender or race, then most people would recognise it as discrimination. Essentially it is the problem of deciding upon the ‘fairness’ of the process which makes it a concern for social justice.

There is a further complication to the social justice case. This concerns the question of whether the focus should be on justice in terms of procedures (‘a level playing field’) or outcomes (‘a fair share of the cake’).For example, in a recruitment process, this would mean either a person is selected according to merit (procedural justice) or he or she is selected in order to fill a quota (to ensure representativeness of different social groups). Selection on merit alone will not produce representativeness unless such merit is evenly distributed throughout all groups.

Of course, such even distribution is highly unlikely due to structural disadvantages and inequalities (schooling, economic support, connections, social stereotypes, and so forth) which limit a person’s potential to acquire meritorious characteristics (Noon and Ogbonna, 2001: 4). As shall be seen later in the chapter, this dilemma leads to different policy suggestions as to how organisations should address the problem of ensuring fairness. Those who favour procedural intervention tend to advocate a ‘light touch’ in terms of legal regulation and best practice guidelines, while those who focus on outcomes advocate stronger legislation and/or more radical changes to organisational processes and practices.

  • Limitations of the social justice argument

Critics of the social justice case tend to argue that while the pursuit of fairness is laudable, it is not the prime concern of organisations. The goals of managers in organisations are profit and efficiency, rather than morality. If social justice were to guide their decision-making it might have a detrimental effect on the operation of the business and ultimately the bottom line. This line of argument has led to an additional rationale for equality and diversity: the business case.

  • The business case

The second set of arguments that can be used to justify why managers should be concerned with eliminating disadvantage is based on making a business case. The point is that, aside from any concerns with social justice, fair treatment simply makes good business sense for four main reasons:

  1. It is a better use of human resources. By discriminating on the basis of sex, race/ethnicity, disability, and so on, managers run the risk of neglecting or overlooking talented employees. The consequence is that the organisation fails to maximise its full human resource potential and valuable resources are wasted through under-utilising the competences of existing employees or losing disgruntled, talented staff to other organisations.
  2. It leads to a wider customer base. By broadening the diversity of the workforce, managers might help the organisation to appeal to a greater range of customers. This might be particularly important where face-to-face service delivery is a central part of the business and requires an understanding of the diverse needs of customers.
  3. It creates a wider pool of labour for recruitment. By being more open-minded about the people they could employ for various jobs, managers will have a wider pool of talent from which to recruit. This is particularly important when an organisation is attempting to secure scarce resources, such as employees with specific skills or experience.
  4. It leads to a positive company image. By having a clear statement of the organisation’s commitment to equal opportunities, backed by meaningful practices that result in a diverse workforce, managers will be able to project a positive image of the organization to customers, suppliers and potential employees. In terms of employees, the organisation will be perceived as good to work for because it values ability and talent, and so is more likely to attract and retain high-calibre people.
  • Limitations of the business case argument

Although these arguments are quite persuasive, there might be some circumstances when ‘good business sense’ provides the justification for not acting in the interest of particular groups. For example, Cunningham and James (2001) find that line managers often justify the decision not to employ disabled people on the grounds that the necessary workplace adjustments would eat into their operating budgets. Indeed, equality and diversity initiatives often have a cost associated with them, the recovery of which cannot always be easily measured and might only be realised in the long term.

The danger (highlighted by commentators such as Dickens, 1994, 2000 and Webb, 1997) is that such initiatives can only be justified as long as they contribute to profit. For example, in Webb’s (1997) case study of an international computing systems manufacturer, the corporate philosophy was to encourage employee diversity to bring in new ideas, meet customer needs and achieve success in the global marketplace. However, at divisional level in the UK, the requests from women for childcare provision and flexible hours were rejected on the basis that these would adversely affect profitability.

Furthermore, although managerial opportunities were open to women, this was clearly on men’s terms, as Webb (1997: 165) explains. This type of problem is common and is expressed vividly by Liff and Wajcman (1996: 89) in the following quote. For an alternative example of how the business case argument can work against a particular group of employees, see the activity below.

A further problem is the issue of measuring the effects of extending opportunities. The underlying assumption is that any initiatives will have a positive effect on business (hence they make good business sense). But this logic requires that they are subsequently measured and evaluated to assess their effects. This poses two difficulties:

  1. Finding a meaningful measure. In some instances this is feasible. For example, it would be possible to recruit more Asian salespeople in order to increase sales to Asian customers, and in this case appropriate measures would be the number and value of sales and the number of Asian customers (identified by their family name). However, in other instances measurement is very difficult. For example, how would you measure the impact of ethnic-awareness training? Or the effects of flexible working arrangements? In both these cases it might be possible to measure the effects in terms of attitudes or changes in performance, but it would be more difficult to attribute these solely to the specific initiatives.
  2. Measuring in the short term. In many instances the full effects of an equality or diversity initiative would only be realised in the long term. For many managers within organisations this would be a disincentive to invest in such initiatives, particularly if the performance of their department was measured in the short term. Moreover, it would be an even greater disincentive to invest if the manager’s salary or bonus was affected by the short-term performance of his or her department.

Overall, the business case argument can make an impact – for example in circumstances of skills shortages, needs for particular types of employees, or local labour market conditions – but this is likely to be variable and patchy. As Dickens (1999: 10) states:

  • Justice and business sense

As you might have noticed, the two sets of arguments are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is feasible and practical for managers to use both sets to justify equality or diversity initiatives in their organisations. Increasingly, groups such as the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality (www.cre.gov.uk) and Equal Opportunity Commission (www.eoc.org.uk) are stressing both sides. It is, in part, a pragmatic realization that by stressing both arguments there is more chance of gaining commitment to equality and diversity from a wider group of people.

Whether a manager is committed to equality because of justice or business sense reasons does not really matter – it is the fact he or she is committed that counts. Of course, this is not quite as simple in practice because once commitment has been gained, there is then the question of what to do about it – and that is when equal opportunities policies have a role to play. Before proceeding with a discussion of policy choices, there is an important point to note that underpins much of the following discussion.

Efforts to tackle unfair discrimination have not been able to develop through a simple reliance on voluntary commitment to social justice by managers or their rational acceptance of the business case. In most countries legislation has been introduced which sets limits to lawful managerial action and places obligations on managers to act in accordance with principles of fairness. Bearing this general point in mind, you should also note the following:

  • The type and extent of this legislation varies from country to country, so it is important to read about the specific legislation in your own national context.
  • Opinion varies as to whether state regulation is necessary or the extent to which it is legitimate or practical to legislate to prevent discrimination and promote equality of opportunity.
  • Even when legislation is in place there is no guarantee that this will ensure that equality of opportunity prevails. This might be because the legislation is flouted

(unlawfully) or because it is ineffective (too weak, too many loopholes, easily ignored, difficult to enforce, and so on). In summary, as has been noted in other chapters (and which is specifically addressed in terms of the UK in Chapter), the external context is an important feature in guiding all managerial action and policy.


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