Why Motivations Matter in Addressing Discriminatory Hiring Practices

Anti-discrimination employment practices can be justified in several ways. First, there is the justice argument. Inherited systems of unequal schools, unfair housing and exclusionary network-based hiring practices have created a pervasive legacy of discrimination that often makes economic justice impossible. Proponents of efforts to ensure basic human rights argue that governments should support interventions that help to address this problem. However, this justification falls short for many. Even prior to the adoption of affirmative action as employment policy in the early 1970s to tackle this concern, many members of the public sought to roll back efforts to ensure such action on behalf of affected groups, arguing that such initiatives violated “equal opportunity” tenets and constituted “reverse discrimination.”

When arguments based on justice and morality failed to persuade policymakers and the public to continue to address structural employment discrimination, proponents contended that more racial equity would lead to a better (e.g., more robustly growing) economy. Benner and Pastor (2012) have suggested that, contrary to classical economic theory, there is a link between inequality and stagnant economies:

The impact of equity on growth may have something to do with the ways in which less equal areas under-invest in basic education, the impact of social tensions on economic decision making, the erosion of ‘social capital’ that can tie a region together, and perhaps the effects on health problems and hence worker efficiency (6).

These undesirable circumstances then cause firms and workers that can do so to leave or simply not invest in their locations and communities. Regional studies have calculated the specific opportunity costs of continued hiring inequality. PolicyLink, for example, found a $16.4 billion economic “inequality deficit” in 2011 in Minnesota, and predicted that figure would rise to $18.3 billion in 2015 (Tran and Treuhaft, 2014).

At the firm level, the “business case” for diversity, inclusion and equity policies has been ascendant since Roosevelt Thomas argued in a 1990 article in the Harvard Business Review that demographic diversity is good for company economic performance as long as it is managed properly. In this view, firms benefit from workforce diversity by possessing a staff better able to relate to an increasingly heterogeneous customer base, as well as from the array of perspectives they represent, leading to more innovative ideas (Jayne and Dipboye, 2004). Thomas’s bottom line-focused justification for fair treatment and subsequent “diversity management” solution has been criticized by civil rights advocates who claim that failure to center employment practice interventions on conceptions of justice and human rights undermines the significance of this concern (Kersten, 2000; Janssens and Zanoni, 2014). That is, these activists have suggested that Thomas and those who have adopted his contention have thoroughly instrumentalized the argument for equal treatment in hiring along economic criteria. Firm leaders are urged to ensure heterogeneity to serve economic gain and not because freedom or justice demand such treatment for all individuals irrespective of their race, ethnicity or gender or other characteristics.

It is interesting to inquire into why these motivations matter. Do they influence the effectiveness of efforts to ensure fairer hiring practices? Some analysts have contended they do, but the empirical evidence concerning the proposition is limited. Groeneveld and Verbeek (2012), for example, found in a study of Dutch firms that “soft” diversity management policies were more effective than “hard” affirmative action policies in retaining higher percentages of “minority” employees. Their analysis suggested that a diversity management strategy based on a dollars-and-cents approach can be more effective than a justice-based one. This finding might lead one to conclude that profit or performance-based motivations for workforce hiring fairness are superior to those based on justice and human rights.

One reason analysts are interested in determining what incentives result in “good” (in this case, less discriminatory) behavior is that identifying those can inform the design of policy interventions. If policy scholars could learn what makes farmers switch from conventional to organic or more sustainable methods, for instance, they might be able to develop policies to incentivize them to do so. If analysts found that farmers are motivated by long-term profit rather than by concern for the environment, for example, they could use that fact to seek to persuade them to change their hiring, planting and harvesting practices. In short, it seems likely that understanding the provenance and purport of motivations may make it easier for advocates to ensure that practices change. The “business case” argument for employment equity draws on this idea. Similarly, incentive-based policy strategies assume that personal or corporate gain is the primary motivator of human behavior.

However, whatever their supposed efficacy, these steps fail to help the people whose values and actions they hope to change think critically about their beliefs and behaviors and their social implications. By substituting a profit-based affirmative action argument for one predicated on civil and human rights, “diversity management” ignores the historical and continuing structural social inequities that led to a need for government intervention in the first place. As Agocs and Burr have observed,

To the extent that it lacks a clear focus on discrimination in employment and the disadvantage it creates, managing diversity blurs the issue of inequality and does not engage questions of how organizational policies, procedures and practices create discriminatory barriers that perpetuate inequality on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity and disability.  … The result has been a silencing of discourse about discrimination and about the responsibility of organizational decision makers to provide remedies (1996, 38).

Put differently, the motivations that underpin policy action matter a great deal. Securing nondiscriminatory hiring is more than a question of incentivizing behavior, but also of allowing decision makers to understand the often negative import of their actions for social justice and equality in a society that otherwise prides itself on its democratic ideals.


Agocs, Carol and Catherine Burr. 1996. Employment equity, affirmative action and managing diversity: assessing the differences. International Journal of Manpower 17, 4/5: 30-45.

Benner, Chris and Manuel Pastor. 2012. Just growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions. Oxford, England: Routledge Publishers.

Groeneveld, Sandra and Stijn Verbeek. 2012. Diversity policies in public and private sector organizations: An empirical comparison of incidence and effectiveness. Review of Public Personnel Administration 32, 4: 353-381.

Janssens, Maddy and Patrizia Zanoni. 2014. Alternative diversity management: Organizational practices fostering ethnic equality at work. Scandinavian Journal of Management 30, 3: 317-331.

Jayne, Michele E. and Robert L. Dipboye. 2004. Leveraging diversity to improve business performance: Research findings and recommendations for organizations. Human Resource Management 43, 4: 409-424.

Kersten, Astrid. 2000. Diversity management: Dialogue, dialectics and diversion. Journal of Organizational Change Management 13, 3: 235-248.

Roosevelt, Thomas, R. 1990. From affirmative action to affirming diversity. Harvard Business Review 68, 2: 107-117.

Tran, Jennifer and Sarah Teuhaft. 2014. Minnesota’s tomorrow: Equity is the superior growth model. PolicyLink, http://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/MNT_032514.pdf. Accessed August 30, 2015.

About the Author

Sarah HFSarah Halvorson-Fried is a student in the Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning degree program at Virginia Tech. She received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Macalester College and has worked in agricultural education, engagement and community building in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Sarah currently serves as a graduate assistant in Partnerships and Engagement at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech. Through her studies, she hopes to understand how public policy can more effectively facilitate community driven, equitable economic development.

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