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Black and Asian workers suffer wage discrimination (3)

The problems of discrimination and job market disadvantage have complex causes. One aspect is the judgement of performance. A report from the Institute for Employment Studies - The Problem of Minority Performance in Organisations (IES, 2001) - concludes that apparent 'under-performance' of minority ethnic employees is due more to the perceptions of white managers than to true measures of their performance or abilities.

IES Director Richard Pearson said:

'Blanket claims of institutional racism are notoriously imprecise, inevitably emotive, and not particularly helpful for finding answers to the challenges of managing diversity in the workplace. Over time, organisational cultures and systems evolve their own subjectivities, and these only emerge as people become more aware of potential side effects. By actively looking for unconscious or indirect bias in systems, processes and attitudes at work, the real problems of workplace discrimination can begin to be eliminated. Our report is a reminder that problems widely exist and that organisations are insufficiently aware of them.'

Differences of perception or perceptions of difference?

The report reviewed published literature to help answer a key question: are the observed differences in performance between individuals from minority ethnic groups and their white counterparts due to real differences in performance or biased perceptions by appraisers in the organisations in which they work? IES Research Fellow and co-author, NiiDjan Tackey observes:

'While some studies have found real differences in performance, the weight of evidence suggests that many of the observed differences are due to bias on the part of those making performance judgements. In other words, some white managers assess their minority ethnic subordinates on criteria other than their ability alone.'

There are two theories which attempt to explain why this difference in perception occurs:

1. The first theory is that managers who assess employees' performance subconsciously look for evidence to confirm broader stereotypes, for example those based on gender or race. When a particular group has negative attributes associated with it, all members of that group are seen in the same light. People who stand out as clear exceptions to the 'rule' are explained by luck or extraordinary effort, rather than genuine ability.

2. Theory Two says that, within an organisation, people are allocated to one of two kinds of groups:

- those identified primarily by the physical characteristics of their members (such as race, ethnicity, gender or disability); and

- those identified by the roles and functions of their members.

Managers - according to this theory - have a tendency to assign people to groups based on a combination of these characteristics, treating them differently according to whether they are in an 'in-group' (ie share the same group membership), or the 'out-group'. In-group people get more favourable treatment; out-group people are managed in a more authoritarian, contractual style.

The ways in which individuals are treated form part of organisational culture. Self-limiting patterns are then set up as minority ethnic individuals hold themselves back because of previous lost opportunities, or become demotivated because they feel less valued or overlooked.


The report provides advice to organisations that are seeking to understand if they unwittingly discriminate against minority ethnic groups, and what they might do to address any identified problems. It recommends the kinds of information and analysis that are needed to establish and locate any problems. Penny Tamkin, IES Principal Research Fellow offers the following advice:

* Review your workforce thoroughly to identify any areas of concern.

* Is the issue in recruitment or in treatment of people, once employed?

* Where are differences focused: eg shortlisting, promotion, assess-ment?

* Where might the causes lie: systems, processes, attitudes or behaviours?

* How might you challenge written and unwritten rules of how things are done?

* What needs to be changed if behaviour is the problem? How much is possible?

* Review the impact of all your actions and revisit the solutions.

The Problem of Minority Performance in Organisations, ND Tackey, P Tamkin, E Sheppard. IES Report 375. ISBN 1-85184-304-3.


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