There is no doubt that managing individual differences and supporting people of all walks of life has recently received more attention from the media, and now features more prominently among public debate.
Since the 1970s, policy makers have been under pressure to develop a legal framework that protects vulnerable individuals in our society.
Emphasis has been placed on moral concern for social justice with a uniform, group-focused approach in addressing equality. A series of legal frameworks have been developed over time, leading to the current Equality Act 2010, which protects individual characteristics including age, disability, gender and reassignment, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation, marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity.
This is an advanced framework which provides clear direction on delivering progress towards inclusivity and equality, and most importantly how to tackle unfair discrimination in our society. This framework should have been able to diminish, or even eliminate, unfair practices and treatment in the workplace and promote visible and non-visible differences. But is that the case?
The question is, to what extent do legal compliance and expectations changes individual mind-sets in such a way to value differences in the workplace? To what extent does the legal framework protect all individuals from unfair organisational practices? And, most importantly, how do organisations perceive the role of workplace equality legislation?
The answers to these questions are not straightforward. On one hand, organisations need to meet their legal duties and ensure organisational policies are in line with key legal expectations. On the other hand, they have been criticised for failing to reduce discrimination, unfair treatment and inequality.
Ensuring everyone is treated equally, and with dignity, should be a key strategic priority, as all individuals should have equal opportunities to develop, progress, and be rewarded and recognised at work.
In reality, there are ‘grey’ areas in how we manage and lead people, which may not specifically be legislated for, but when used to identify an individual as ‘other’ can serve as an exclusionary mechanism.
Of course, it would not be productive to regulate every aspect of organisational life. But, a lack of women in leadership positions, issues of bias in recruitment, unfair performance evaluations, gender and sex discriminatory behaviours and disengagement in employment relations cause hidden inequalities – forms of organisational practice and functions which reinforce not readily seen potential differences amongst individuals.
For example, the way organisations offer flexible working practices creates structural and cultural barriers which keep inequalities in the workplace. The Taylor Review commissioned by the British government illustrates the need for organisations to review completely flexible working practices, with the scope to promote organisational inclusion and address generational changes. Further to that, BAME employees deal with a number of cultural barriers, social stigma and organisational bias which influence their experience at work and prevent them for utilising fully their careers (McGregor-Smith review).
Despite the all-encompassing appearance of the Equality Act 2010, there remain characteristics which are unprotected yet could be the basis for discriminatory treatment and thus can be considered hidden inequalities, like perpetuate social exclusion, management/employee trust withdrawal, lack of promotional opportunities and social justice that might create material, affective, or psychological divisions amongst individuals.
But what we can do?
To balance compliance with affirmative action and find appropriate management practices which address individual needs, we need to accept that hidden inequalities do exist in the workplace regardless of the legal requirements. Often this is because employment and management decisions are made based on characteristics not covered by the Equality Act 2010.
Poor recognition of hidden inequalities could have a detrimental effect upon individual behaviour, including psychological withdrawal and performance issues.
Several workforce changes – generational differences, nature of work, technology and flexibility – have created challenges such as bias, stress, wellbeing and talent management. This is partly because organisations are mainly concerned about the need for compliance with the current legislation.
Change is driven principally from external pressures, so to encourage organisations to take positive action towards inequality, an external regulatory mechanism is essential. However, as we are experiencing, written policy and legal compliance are not sufficient to eliminate discriminatory behaviours with regards to hidden inequalities in the workplace. There needs to be internal pressure and willingness.
Without appropriate action, there is always the risk cultural and behavioural attitudes lead to inequality and influence an organisation’s ability to adapt to changing employment relationships.
Some progress has been made to tackle discrimination and promote equality for all individuals, but the legal framework is ‘toothless’ in its attempts to ensure this shift in individual behaviour and attitude.
In the current socio-political environment, drastic actions should be taken to promote fairness in the labour market.
Legal obligations and diversity policy have been seen as creating a culture of political correctness. For some, providing quotas for addressing inequality in society is not driven by the desire to change attitude, but is mainly on ensuring compliance with legislation -creating a system in which discrimination practices and behaviour are not addressed.
Others blame leaders for the current inequalities issues. Hence, they are under pressure to treat everyone with respect in the workplace.
The problem here is that thinking outside the legal framework is often treated as a voluntary activity and in the process key issues are ignored. Addressing legal obligations is just the start in promoting diversity as organisations measure and evaluate the identity profile of work groups, the prevalent organisational culture, and identify the cultural barriers that may act as agents in hindering equality.
Business leaders should drive progress, which is not limited to specialist understanding of diversity issues but extends to the development of sufficient knowledge and expertise in changing individual attitudes.
We have a long way to go to ensure equality for everyone. The current legislation fails to produce the desirable outcomes, but also organisations fail to take positive actions. After all, we need to act as change agents in such a challenging environment and raise awareness around hidden inequalities.
This could be a great achievement as new knowledge could remove hurtful, offensive, and unacceptable discriminatory behaviours and practices from the workplace.
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Bio: Dr Stefanos Nachmias is a Principal Lecturer in the Department of Human Resource Management at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University. Stefanos' scholarly interests range from graduate recruitment, career decision-making and labour markets to learning and curriculum development. He also has a particular interest in diversity management, including research on gender equality, the business case and diversity education. He is co-author of Hidden Inequalities in the Workplace: A Guide to the Current Challenges, Issues and Business Solutions.