The Diversity Management Approach to Equal Employment Opportunity in Australian Organisations

By Burgess, John; French, Erica et al. | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Diversity Management Approach to Equal Employment Opportunity in Australian Organisations


Burgess, John, French, Erica, Strachan, Glenda, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Introduction

Australia has a mosaic of anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws covering the workplace, designed to provide protection against direct and indirect discrimination for such groups as women, the disabled, older employees and gays and lesbians, as well as other legislation designed to promote career opportunities for women. These legislative requirements are in turn supported through industrial agreements, and through organisational policies. Often, the resulting policies and programs within organisations proclaim workforce diversity as an asset, and are based on the claim that diversity can be harnessed towards organisational objectives. Thus increasingly, workplace equity programs have been brought under the broad label of managing diversity (MD). Yet, there have been few attempts to evaluate the 'big picture' of diversity management in Australian organisations. Here, the aim is to review MD in Australia, place it in its legislative context, examine the drivers for MD, discuss their relationship to legislative measures promoting equity, and examine the practice of MD. Shifting responsibility for achieving equality objectives to organisations makes sense in terms of efficiency. However, the practice of MD is itself diverse (Strachan et al 2010), and even where there is some prescription and guidance such as in the Australian EEO legislation, the outcomes are variable (Burgess et al 2007). We thus explore the rationale of MD, examine the legislation support equity in the Australian workplace and discuss some organisations that have been selected as 'best practice' exemplars in terms of their EEO reporting.

What is MD?

Managing diversity (MD) has its origins in the USA in the context of affirmative action policies and a rapidly changing workforce demographic (from white males to increasing numbers of women, Hispanics and Afro Americans). In the words of Thomas (2001), anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation had provided the 'entry tickets' into the workforce, while MD was about productively building on this entry. Kirton and Greene (2005) point out that the US context of MD is very specific to legislative, political and demographic conditions, and that MD as a business process is not necessarily transferable to EU nations. Similarly in Australia, one has to be cognisant of the specific legislative and demographic context of MD policies. MD is also organisationally specific. MD is confined to those organisations that are sufficiently large to have diverse workforces and to have an HR division that is responsible for workforce management and development. MD is individualised in the sense that each organisation develops its own program subject to its own needs and those of its employees. Indeed, the programs could be individualised to satisfy the diversity needs of each employee. While programs must conform to universal legislative conditions such as anti-discrimination laws, the authority for MD comes from within the organisation. In this context, MD can be said to be fluid and evolving, subject to development and change as the organisation evolves in terms of its employees, business conditions, and the prevailing organisational objectives. It follows that MD is inexorably linked to organisational goals, and hence discussions of MD are invariably linked to the 'business case' for MD (Holterman 1995).

Diversity itself remains an unclear concept. It is contextually specific and linked to demographic and socio-political features of the population and the workforce. Diversity is a selective concept in that some but not all physical characteristics are incorporated into MD programs (Moore 1999). Diversity also has invisible and hidden aspects that include culture and attitudes (Moore 1999). MD programs in general mimic or reflect legislative programs that prohibit discrimination and encourage EEO opportunities within the workplace, and hence many MD programs support such groups as women, ethnic minorities, older workers and people with a disability. …

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