Discrimination, Equality, And Fairness In Employment

Discrimination, Equality, And Fairness In Employment

Discrimination in employment occurs when individuals, institutions, or governments treat people differently because of personal characteristics like race, gender, or sexual orientation rather than their ability to perform their jobs and these actions have a negative impact on access to jobs, promotions, or compensation.

However, the inequality of rights has no other source than the law of the strongest. Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who professed it? We ought not to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, shall dictate a person’s position through life.

The International Bill of Human Rights, as well as the various national laws described in the previous chapter, is aimed at banning discrimination and assuring equal opportunities to people regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, disability, or other characteristics that are not relevant to their jobrelated skills. These laws are negative in that they prohibit discrimination in employment. In the past several decades, a new category of protections has emerged—social policies that are positive in that they aim to change the rules and provide advantages to groups that have traditionally been discriminated against. These social policies go beyond assuring equal rights to correct past wrongs. They are grouped under titles such as “positive action” in Europe (e.g., Chater & Chater, 1992) or “affirmative action” in the United States (e.g., Soni, 1999). Other countries that have later adopted similar policies have used one or the other of these terms (see for example, White, 2001; Sunstein, 1999). This chapter begins with a discussion of different types of discrimination to provide the context for these policies and then turns to the specific policies in various countries whose aim is to actively promote equality and fairness in employment. It concludes with the public and political debate over these policies and the challenges they pose for business practices.

Originally morally neutral in its meaning, the word discrimination has acquired a negative value, particularly in the context of employment. Webster’s New World Dictionary (1984), for example, reflects this duality by providing both meanings. The first two definitions are the morally neutral, and the last is the morally negative:

“Discrimination: (1) the act of discriminating, or distinguishing differences; (2) the ability to make or perceive distinctions; perception; discernment; (3) a showing of partiality, or prejudice in treatment; specifically action or policies directed against the welfare of minority groups” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1984).

There are several classifications of discriminatory acts that can help us in understanding the way discrimination is manifested in the workplace. First, discrimination can be overt or covert. Overt discrimination occurs as a result of an explicit policy or law that generates unequal treatment; covert discrimination is the result of an implicit side effect of another policy or decision. Second, discrimination can be individual or institutional. It is individual when a single manager or a coworker in conjunction with his or her individual prejudice performs the action or actions; it is institutional when it is performed as part of the organization’s common practices or policies. Finally, discrimination can be characterized by the motivation behind it and can be either intentional or unintentional.1 The following examples may help demonstrate these distinctions. The first example comes from the July 1943 issue of Mass Transportation (see Box 3.1). Male supervisors of women in the workforce wrote these “Eleven

Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees” during World War II. It is clearly prejudicial: “Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves,” and derogatory, “You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.” Though it seems laughable today, the “advice” given to managers in this piece was considered serious and meant to be helpful.

The discrimination in this example is overt—clearly the authors were not aware there was anything wrong with their attitude and didn’t make any attempt to hide their prejudice; it is institutionalized—this is not an act of a single manager but instructions given to all managers; and it is intentional— the intent of the authors was to treat women differently because women were perceived to possess inferior characteristics.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873),
English philosopher and influential
liberal thinker of the nineteenth century.

(Agency Report)

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