'Equality cannot be expected of organisations given the nature of business'

Swati Jena and TN Hari
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Swati Jena and TN Hari 

Highlights

Is discrimination the very basis of management? The idea "might seem preposterous" on face value but a "close look into how organisations discriminate at every stage will establish that far from being preposterous, this is actually a fact we all accept and live by", says a new book on the art of management.

Is discrimination the very basis of management? The idea "might seem preposterous" on face value but a "close look into how organisations discriminate at every stage will establish that far from being preposterous, this is actually a fact we all accept and live by", says a new book on the art of management.

There is a fine line between "differentiation" and "discrimination" because "equality cannot or should not be expected of organisations given the nature of business", Swati Jena and TN Hari write in "Diversity Beyond Tokenism - Why Being Politically Correct Doesn't Help Anyone" (SAGE India).

The book advocates that diversity in the workplace should be a conscious business choice and not just a politically correct mandate to follow. It aims to debunk myths and biases surrounding diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Peppered with global and cross-cultural case studies, examples and comparisons from a range of countries including emerging economies, the authors attempt to build a strong case for diversity through a logically consistent and well-articulated approach.

Each chapter includes critical analysis, questions, 'Big Ideas' that are essentially critical insights and reflections to help the reader conceptualize and contextualize diversity in the workplace.

The start-up world, for instance is rife with murmurs of entrepreneurs anguished about investors having a pedigree bias; that an IIT-ian or the like may find initial funding easier than someone outside the Ivy League.

"During inside conversations," the authors write, "many investors may agree to it, their rationale being that the initial bet is made on the entrepreneur. They opine that while pedigree may not be the only decider, it's considered a proxy indicator for capability and ability to go through the grind.

"To some, this may seem like a case of differentiation. To others, it may be education-based discrimination. Giving differential treatment to customers based on their buying capacity could be termed as economic discrimination by some. Hence, getting lost in semantics is both futile and non-productive to our goal," the book maintains.

"What's necessary is to acknowledge, that while discrimination has become a bad word, it's the very algorithm by which people, whether employees or customers, are managed. The corollary to this principle is that equality cannot or should not be expected of organisations given the nature of business. This brings us to the concept of fairness, which is often used inaccurately to mean equality. Both are not the same things," the authors contend.

Noting that organisations are increasingly being put in the dock for seeking to hire certain demographic profiles, pay differentially, etc, or, in other words, being expected to practise 'equality', the book says that "differentiating between the need for organisations to be equal, as opposed to being fair, becomes critical".

"We cannot expect organisations to be equal. But we can expect them to be fair. And here lies the key to dealing with discrimination in organisations. Organisations cannot be non-discriminatory. What they must strive for is, to discriminate using fair and transparent principles," the authors argue.

Then, compensation is another form of discrimination.

"A premier college graduate is offered a higher pay than his colleague from a lower-rung college for the same job. That's discrimination. And it's not only accepted but also becomes the reason for aspiration of millions of youngsters and their parents slogging to make the cut into these premier colleges," the book says.

Thus, the entire performance management system becomes an official exercise in identifying and discriminating between people at different levels of performance as defined by the organisation.

But then, the book points out, businesses discriminate among customers as well - be it airlines or banks, select customers get to stand on the red carpet, get quick service, while others wait in long queues.

"Coinage of the word 'cattle class' for economy airline tickets represents more than just the seat size. There have been discussions on algorithmic pricing of cab services, and how it might charge customers more based on neighbourhoods and factors like your phone battery running low. Giving preferential treatment to customers based on their lifetime value of business is an established business practice," the authors write.

There is also the perennial question of Equal Pay for Equal Work, the book says, and quotes the example of two leading actors, Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor, who were asked during a leadership summit about the gender-pay disparity in Bollywood.

"Kapoor said she would like to get paid as much as Kumar. The latter said he was actually a partner to the producer in their current movie together.

"Further, he offered Kapoor the opportunity to be a 50 per cent partner in the next movie, not seeking remuneration for her acting, but taking half of what the movie made at the box office. What this conversation reveals, is that pay gap is not merely a gender-bias issue - and the solution is not as simple as paying women more," the authors note.

A sexism debate in start-up world is why a small fraction of venture funding goes to male founders as compared to female founders.

"There are multiple arguments on both sides. Those claiming sexism say, investors have a bias towards women founders. Others say that women themselves may present themselves conservatively during pitches while men exaggerate their qualities. Recently, funds specifically focusing on female founders have cropped up. However, is that a sustainable solution? How do we deal with this never-ending debate, in every sector," the authors ask. The long-term solution in the business context will be to understand and resolve what keeps female founders behind while seeking investment, instead of setting up special funds, to 'meet them halfway'.

"We are not saying some additional efforts are negative. Our point is that, in a business context, the root causes of discriminatory practices need to be addressed, taking a practical view instead of expecting utopian scenarios," the authors maintain.

(Swati Jena, the founder of WriteFor, a center of excellence to learn, experience and collaborate for writing, is an XLRI alumna, TEDx speaker and LinkedIn Top Voice.

TN Hari wears different hats -- author, angel investor, advisor to VCs, and Chief Human Resource Officer of Bigbasket.

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