Equal Opportunities Equals Diversity Management – Or Not?

A critical evaluation of the extent to which these concepts differ conceptually and legally

Essay 2017 21 Pages

Leadership and Human Resource Management - Miscellaneous



Workplace discrimination in the UK is regulated under the Equality Act 2010 (c.15) which protects employees from direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment. Despite existing legislation, discrimination prevails and negatively impacts not only victims of discrimination but also organisations and society in general (Regmi and Naidoo, 2009). Recent reports from the Equality and Human Rights Commission confirm the persistence of discrimination especially regarding gender equality in the UK (Adams et al, 2015; Abrams et al, 2016). Historically, there have been two approaches aiming to eliminate such discrimination and to promote workplace equity: Equal opportunities (EO) and diversity management (DM) (Ross and Schneider, 1992).

Literature shows a dichotomisation between both approaches: one prevents discrimination against legally protected groups based on social justice arguments, the other draws business benefits from diversity (Tatli, 2011). Dundon and Rollinson (2011) claim that both terms, whilst being used interchangeably, are conceptually and legally very different. However, this dichotomisation is subject to debates: In research, for instance, experts disagree whether DM really is different or perhaps just a change in rhetoric (Maxwell et al, 2001). In practice, diversity programmes still resemble equal opportunity policies which calls this distinction into question (Foster and Harris, 2005). This essay argues that, in the context of the UK, there are some conceptual differences but that DM generally builds on the foundations of EO and cannot be separated but rather depends on EO. However, internationally, differences are more evident. This essay ends with a brief consideration of one possible reason why discrimination still exists by looking at the concept of unconscious bias and its impact on both equal opportunities and diversity management.


Dundon and Rollinson (2011) claim that both equal opportunities and diversity management differ both conceptually and legally but that they are often used interchangeably. They align themselves in the debate on whether this dichotomy exists or whether the distinction is exaggerated (Kirton and Greene, 2010). Common positions see them as fundamentally different or a progression, or as either mutually exclusive or interdependent (Maxwell et al, 2001). Striking is, that there is much literature contrasting but less comparing them, despite multiple calls for both approaches to be combined (e.g. Shen et al, 2009). The main commonality is undoubtedly their aim to provide fairness and equality at work (Fujimoto, Härtel and Azmat, 2013). In fact, both concepts, DM in particular, are perceived as effective methods to address negative treatment at work (Verheij et al, 2017). The negative impact workplace discrimination can have on employees and organisations (i.e. increased stress and turnover intention) is well documented and thus preventing discrimination should be on every organisation’s agenda (e.g. Regmi and Naidoo, 2009). Both EO and DM thus seem to aim for organisational justice (Fujimoto, Härtel and Azmat, 2013) and connect to Adam’s (1963) equity and procedural justice theory, meaning that how employees perceive fairness of decision-making and HR policies and practices impacts their work (Fujimoto, Härtel and Azmat, 2013). Hence, if both concepts aim for organisational justice and fairness, this is one possible explanation why they are used interchangeably and that they are not too different but that they simply have different goals in mind.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to dichotomise both terms (Ross and Schneider, 1992; Maxwell et al, 2001). While EO seems to be a pro-equality approach that is limited to ensuring social justice by focusing on problems associated with diversity (i.e. discrimination and inequality), DM goes beyond to focus on potential of diversity as a resource to realise business benefits (Tatli, 2011; Verheij et al, 2017). However, looking at how both terms are conceptualised shows that this distinction is not always clear-cut (Tatli, 2011). Historically, EO in the UK took different forms and was redefined multiple times according to the dominant public and political opinion at the time (Oswick and Noon, 2014). Generally, it can be described as a rights-based, systematic, liberal approach that relies on legal compliance and the principle of sameness so that discrimination based on social differences is prevented and fair and equal treatment can be provided (Kirton and Greene, 2005). Chambers (2009) broadly distinguishes between traditional non-discrimination, referring to formal equality that treats individuals without further distinguishing between social differences (Fankel, 1971). A more progressive form is based on fundamental egalitarian equality, an approach that assumes that everyone has the inalienable human right to be treated equally unless there are objective and justifiable reasons for differential treatment (Frankel, 1971). It acknowledges that not everyone is equal due to different obstacles they have to overcome but that equal opportunities are provided if everyone can achieve the same goal despite their differences (Westen, 1985). The focus is on specific disadvantaged groups that are treated as members from the same reference group and are measured against a set of neutral standards set by the organisation (Cambers, 2009). The extent to which these standards are neutral has been criticised as this required minorities to assimilate to the characteristics of the dominant group rather than focusing on objective standards based on merit (Maxwell, 2004). More egalitarian forms of equal opportunities allow for positive action and acknowledge that organisations should provide minorities with the necessary skills and a fair chance to compete on a level playing field but then they should be measured based on merit (Liff, 1999; Chambers, 2009; Burton, 2014).

EO was often criticised because it failed to eliminate discrimination arguably because of its reactive, complaint-based approach requiring instances of discrimination to be reported without much effort to prevent discrimination in the first place (Kirton and Greene, 2010). The main problem may be that it is limited to providing access to opportunities and prevent overt discrimination (Oswick and Noon, 2014; Burton, 2014). It cannot address the root causes of inequalities or even plurality of inequalities (Bagilhole, 2010; Burton, 2014). Therefore, with the growing diversity of workforces due to a variety of factors such as globalisation, demographic developments, growing anti-discrimination legislation, and skills shortages (Hunt et al, 2015; Wrench, 2005; Sargeant, 2005; Lauring, 2013) and most importantly, the persistence of workplace discrimination and inequalities there was a need to develop a multi-focus approach that addresses discrimination on a more proactive and individual level (Bagilhole, 2010).

Diversity management generally means the understanding that employees are different and that, if managed properly, these differences can contribute to better business performance (Bartz et al, 1990). Hence, there was a shift away from a focus on disadvantaged groups to a more individual level that encompasses a much broader scope where the organisation tended to adapt to the individual needs of their employees rather than the employee having to assimilate (Kirton and Greene, 2005; Shen et al, 2009).

For example, the concept of diversity itself is described as more complex. Harrison and Klein (2007) and Phillips and Gully (2012) argue that EO defines diversity in terms of visible differences (i.e. gender, age, etc.), but diversity should be distinguished on multiple levels: surface-level, meaning visible differences such as gender or age, and deep-level diversity, meaning invisible differences such as experience or knowledge to illustrate the broadness of diversity beyond visible differences (Moore, 1999). Whilst there is merit in this expansion of the term diversity to understand its significance, it is cautioned (e.g. Tali, 2011) that by stretching the definition of diversity too much, it will distort its meaning. Consequently, the term is then used as an umbrella term to mean a variety of things, including traditional EO (Foster and Harris, 2005; Wrench, 2005; Tatli et al, 2012; Oswick and Noon, 2014). While this explains why it may be used interchangeably with EO, it is not helpful in exploring in how far they differ from each other.

Therefore, to distinguish more clearly between both concepts, Verheij et al (2017) drawing from Thomas and Ely (1996) proposed three perspectives on the uses of diversity: According to them, diversity management can focus on discrimination and fairness from a morally driven perspective, representing traditional EO, or it can focus on differences as a resource as either integration and learning – which emphasises the value that can come from diverse thinking and creativity and thus deep-level diversity or access and legitimisation – referring to the ability to better build rapport to a diverse customer profile if the workforce is representative of the organisation’s customer base (Verheij et al, 2017). Again, this suggests that DM is a much broader concept than EO (Christiansen and Sezerel, 2013). In fact, EO can be seen as an integral part of DM. Similarly, Shen et al (2009) proposed a conceptual framework depicting DM as including EO and making use of diversity to inform effective HR diversity practices. This view finds support in practice as shown by Maxwell (2004) who illustrates that BBC Scotland builds their DM initiatives on the foundation of their existing EO policies.

Verheij et al’s (2017) equally shows that a key difference to EO is DM’s focus on economic benefits. Burton (2014) proposes that this mirrors a shift in the political equality agenda towards a more market based approach that focused more on improving business competitiveness by changing the equality discourse from an individual birth right to an economic necessity. Diversity management therefore shifts away from a legal and moral-based argument towards an economic business case which associates both tangible (i.e. improved financial performance) and intangible (i.e. increased innovation) organisational benefits with diversity (Moore, 1999; Oswick and Noon, 2014). Specifically, the business case argues that organisational performance improves through the ability to attract talent, because of a wider talent pool; better customer orientation, because employees are better able to relate to customer needs if they reflect their customer base; increased employee satisfaction because organisations are better able to cater individual needs; improved decision making because diverse thinking stimulates innovative and creative thinking and better reputation because DM is the ethically right thing to do (Hunt et al, 2015). It can therefore be seen as instrumental in improving the organisation’s performance in that it addresses and satisfies each employees’ needs to increase their commitment and consequently motivation to contribute to organisational success. As such, it can be seen as a way the organisation can encourage employee engagement (Purcell, 2014). This ultimately links back to the psychological contract stating that by providing a supportive, fair and just work environment, employees will feel valued and engaged and improve their performance (Purcell, 2014).

However, the main danger with the business case argument is that organisations focus too much on the potential economic benefits and neglect to consider the discrimination and inequality perspective of diversity. This could consequently undermine and render equality efforts ineffective (Kirton and Greene, 2010; Verheij et al, 2017). Especially, if business benefits are expected to and then fail to automatically manifest (Noon, 2007). For example, Hunt et al (2015) provide evidence for a significant positive correlation, no causation, between financial performance and greater gender diversity in leadership positions in the UK. Organisations could therefore assume that by increasing gender diversity, there will be increased benefits. Consequently, a focus on managing gender diversity could neglect other dimensions (i.e. race) where discrimination could go undetected and lead to increased stress, lower satisfaction and commitment and thus ultimately harm the organisation (Regmi and Naidoo, 2009). Therefore, it is important that organisations remain cautious not to adopt a one-sided naïve approach to diversity but rather to aim for a more realistic integrative approach that balances business case perspectives with discrimination and inequality perspectives (Moore, 1999; Verheij, 2017).

At the same time, the emergence of DM did not mean the disappearance of EO and concerns that equality disappears from managerial agendas is unreasonable (Wrench, 2005). Studies continuously show that while conceptually, they may be understood as distinct because of their different focuses (pro-equality vs pro-diversity) organisational practice does not distinguish between EO and DM but that both approaches co-exist (Maxwell, 2004; Foster and Harris, 2005; Tatli, 2011). The emphasis organisations put on either may be different as organisations may strategically choose between EO and DM discourses to argue for different cases depending on the specific aim as illustrated with the example of increased gender diversity to boost financial performance above (Lauring, 2013; Verheij et al, 2017). Oswick and Noon (2014) and Tatli (2011) therefore argue that the shift from EO to DM is only partial and that differences may be exaggerated but that both concepts still embrace the same underlying mindset and values. Indeed, good DM initiatives should prevent discrimination on the short term and harness the benefits of a diverse workforce over the long term by creating an inclusive work environment (Bagshaw, 2004; Oswick and Noon, 2014).

Nevertheless, rather than conceptualising DM by distinguishing it from EO, DM is perhaps best conceptualised in context (i.e. their demographic, socio-cultural, economic and regulatory contexts) because different organisations may approach diversity differently (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009; Tatli et al, 2012). Syed and Özbilgin (2009) developed a relational model that conceptualises DM on three interrelated levels: macro – national structures and institutions and resulting legislative frameworks, meso – organisational structures and routine approaches towards the value of diversity as outlined above, and micro – individual agency and perspectives. This is a particularly useful model to use to show how EO and DM interrelate in organisations.

They argue that organisational approaches to diversity management – whether they focus on discrimination and fairness, integration and learning or access and legitimisation (Verheij et al, 2017) – and consequently organisational attitudes towards diversity are shaped by the extent to which the macro and micro level influence organisational policies and processes (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009). The macro-level context of an organisation is heavily influenced by a country’s national culture and national equal opportunity policies at the social policy level (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009). Hence, as EO generally derives from national legislative frameworks, the extent to which organisations lean towards EO or DM depends on the extent to which national Governments can influence organisational policies and procedures (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009). The UK is characterised by a voluntarist approach to enforcing EO and DM legislation (Tatli et al, 2012) and thus, the influence of the macro-level is likely to be moderate.

Similarly, individuals at the micro-level also influence organisational DM approaches (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009). According to the social categorisation theory individuals categorise themselves and others into specific groups according to how they are similar or dissimilar to each other with regard to aspects such as age, gender, or even culture (Syed and Özbilgin, 2009; Verheij et al, 2017). Consequently, the more diverse a workforce is, the greater is the possibility that such groups form and develop diverging needs and expectations. Weeks et al (2017) have shown that inter-group relations have to be well managed to prevent tensions from arising. Hence, as it is central to DM to acknowledge that individuals or indeed groups are different and that these differences need to be well managed to leverage business benefits (Bartz et al, 1990) and considering previous analysis, DM can be seen as complying with macro level requirements regarding EO and effectively managing these inter-group relations.

Another dimension emerges when a legal perspective is taken. As suggested by Syed and Özbilgin’s model, EO and DM are heavily influenced by legislation. With regards to diversity, legislation has the most influence on the discrimination and inequality perspective (Verheij et al, 2017). In the UK, EO is traditionally rooted in anti-discrimination legislation with its origins in 1967 characterised by a liberal-pluralist perspective which set out the guidelines for organisational policies and procedures that had to be complied by to prevent discrimination and ensure equality and fairness (Kirton and Greene, 2005; Dickens, 2007). The extent to which they impacted on organisational practice depended on the influence the Government had at the time (Dickens, 2007). Legislation was complaint-based and implemented incrementally to address specific issues prevalent at the time starting with racial equality and gradually expanding to include further aspects such as gender or age which was in part driven by the transnational influence of the EU (Dickens, 2007; Tatli et al, 2012). This incremental approach and failure to acknowledge pluralities of discrimination is seen as main reasons for its failure to eliminate workplace discrimination (Bagilhole, 2010; Burton, 2014).



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Nottingham Trent University
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Diversity Diversity Management Equal Opportunities UK Unconscious Bias Discrimination Equality Act Business Case




Title: Equal Opportunities Equals Diversity Management – Or Not?