Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Employment Equity in Canada: Making Sense of Employee Discourses of Misunderstanding, Resistance, and Support

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Employment Equity in Canada: Making Sense of Employee Discourses of Misunderstanding, Resistance, and Support

Article excerpt


Employment equity seeks to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups in employment. However, there has been little research that examines the attitudes toward employment equity among Canadians. This paper explores employee discourse of an employment equity initiative in a mid-sized Canadian organization. Studying employee discourse is important because misunderstandings of employment equity can create backlash among the working public, particularly when the economy is declining and job opportunities are scarce, and hamper government efforts to promote workplace equality (Agocs and Burr 1996; Reitz 2005; Reitz and Banerjee 2007). Employee discourse contributes to the perception and enactment of workplace policy, and can provide an insight into staff views and interpretations of important policies (Ter Hoeven et al. 2012). Furthermore, politicians' efforts to "depoliticize" employment equity using statistical reporting can result in backlash because of perceived quotas and targets (Grundy and Smith 2011). Bakan and Kobayashi (2007) reported that such backlash has stymied the cooperation from employers and policy makers when governments implement employment equity. Furthermore, those hired under employment equity were often stigmatized and seen as less competent, resulting in employee resistance (Matheson et al. 2000; Ng and Wiesner 2007).

This study examines the construction of employee understanding of employment equity as a first step to developing an understanding of how and why employment equity is either accepted or is seen as problematic by organizational members. It adopts a discourse analytic perspective to the study of employee comments regarding employee equity in their workplace. Discourse analysis, as a form of textual analysis, explores the richness of people's natural language to detect themes, patterns, and nuances that might not be detected in quantitative work (Roberson and Stevens 2006). It enables the exploration of how issues come to be understood, represented, and co-constructed by individuals (Wood and Kroger 2000). A discourse analytic framework facilitates exploration of the discursive strategies that underpin both support of and resistance to employment equity, and can enhance understanding of perceptions, understandings and misunderstandings of this complex organizational issue.

Background: Employment equity policy

Efforts to implement employment equity began in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the federal and Quebec governments sought to increase Aboriginal and Francophone participation in civil service (Agocs 1986). The legal foundation for employment equity was provided under the Canadian Human Rights Act (1981). The Public Service Employment Act (1967) also established prohibitions against sex discrimination. The Canadian Employment and Immigration Commission, established in 1976, oversaw voluntary programs to include women and Aboriginals in federal contracts (Agocs 1986). When the federal government began investigating the need for mandatory employment equity aimed at improving the economic status of minorities who faced discrimination in the labour market, it asked the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment to make policy recommendations.

The resulting policy response was the 1984 report (Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report) by Judge Rosalie Abella. According to Abella, members of the four designated groups, namely women, visible minorities (1), Aboriginal peoples, and persons with disabilities, have historically faced barriers to employment. They were disproportionately excluded from the workplace because of their group membership, and most of the barriers they faced were systemic in nature. Employment equity policy was intended to ensure fairness in the workplace by removing systemic barriers due to factors unrelated to merit. This would allow these groups to contribute evenly to the success of their employers and to the economic and social well-being of all Canadians. …

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