The idea of discrimination is all over the workplace. In the break room, posters on the wall warn against the dangers of discrimination. The Human Resources department constantly reminds employees that discrimination is not permitted. But the concept of discrimination is rarely explained. Although it seems obvious that racism is discrimination based on race, this really only describes the tip of the iceberg. Formally, discrimination is the withholding of “some benefit or opportunity because of membership in some group toward which there is substantial prejudice” (Boatright, 2007, p. 177). The key to discrimination is that the treatment of individuals is based on their membership in a group. Therefore, it is possible make personnel decisions based on the merit of an individual as long as merit is the motivator for the decision (Boatright, 2007).
A study done in the UK revealed that nearly 25% of respondents felt they had been the victim of some sort of discrimination. Surprisingly, the number one form of discrimination found in this study was ageism. This was followed by discrimination against people with disabilities, other national origins (i.e., race or ethnicity), and finally gender (Bentley, 2003). One form of discrimination not discussed in this study was religious discrimination, although this form of discrimination is often linked with national origin (Boatright, 2007).
So many different forms of discrimination can be overwhelming. To confuse the issue, many of types of discrimination can overlap. For example, discrimination based on national origin can involve race and religion. An individual may fall into one or many of these categories. It is important for businesses to have all these forms in mind when designing hiring and promoting practices. If personnel decisions are not based fairly on subjective evaluation, the business may open itself to a discrimination lawsuit. The difficulty of maintaining unbiased personnel practices has lead to the adoption of affirmative action (Boatright, 2007).
Affirmative action programs first began appearing in the 1970s. These programs are based on the idea that simply ending discriminatory personnel practices are not enough to counteract the effects of previous discrimination. Therefore, more active steps are taken to ensure a balanced workforce. For example, when the Kaiser Aluminum Company realized that there were few qualified black craft workers because of prior discrimination, it devised a plan to develop a training program in-house. This affirmative action program raised the percentage of skilled black craft works from 2% to 39%; a percentage equivalent to the proportion of all black workers in the area (Boatright, 2007).
Bentley, R. (2003, October 21). One in four hit by prejudice at work. Computer Weekly. Retrieved June 8, 2008, from Computer Source database.
Boatright, J. (2007). Ethics and the conduct of business, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.