Positive Action in HRM : Context and Examples

In the area of Human Resource Management (HRM), positive action involves the steps employers can take in areas such as recruitment, selection, promotion and training to encourage more people from disadvantaged or low participation groups. This is often seen as necessary as some discrimination in employment is so entrenched that mere prohibition is insufficient.

Equal opportunities

We can locate positive action within three linked areas. First, equal opportunities, whose underpinning rationale is to treat everyone the same. This approach has a legislative and compliance focus and is concerned with equality of status, opportunities and rights, stressing the importance of treating people equally, irrespective of differences.

Its objective is that individuals should be treated on the basis of job-related criteria and that differences should not be considered relevant criteria in either their favour or disadvantage. This approach suggests that individuals can be stripped of their differences for the purposes of organisational decision making.

Managing diversity

Second, managing diversity, which positively recognises people’s differences and uses them. This approach aims at organisations where individual differences are of no significance in determining treatment but go further to recognise differences in an explicit strategy of valuing people’s differences. This focuses upon an explicit holistic strategy of valuing differences driven by organisational needs.

Affirmative action

Third, ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’, which allows discrimination in defined terms. This approach explicitly recognises certain characteristics and actions to encourage greater participation from people with them.

In terms of the positive action in the Act, this involves groundbreaking inclusion methods, the so-called ‘tie break’.

Positive action can be set, in the context of several theories, from a range of disciplines that seek to explain discrimination. These theorise that people prefer interaction with others similar in commonalities. Ideals are similar to perceptions of ourselves, with preference for similar others the result of limited exposure to dissimilar others.

A sociological view is the Homophily Principle with a similar notion from psychology, Similarity-Attraction Theory. These are the basis for Tokenism Theory and Unconscious Bias Theory. Another extension is Relational Demography Theory, with the importance of similarity examined more narrowly, by focusing on various demographic variables used to assess how similar one individual is to another.

Positive action in practice

We now outline an example of positive action in practice. The UK government’s attempt to reduce discrimination in the workplace came with the Equality Act (2010). This replaced, simplified and strengthened the previous mixed bag of anti-discrimination laws in areas such as recruitment, pay, etc. The Act provided a comprehensive legal framework to try to better protect certain groups of workers from unfair treatment on a range of grounds. These are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race (including ethnic or national origins, colour and nationality), religious belief (including faith), sex, sexual orientation.

In terms of the positive action in the Act, this involves groundbreaking inclusion methods, the so-called ‘tie break’. This gives employers the option to choose those from under-represented groups when candidates are of ‘equal merit’ in recruitment, training and promotion areas. Employers can use characteristics protected under the law to make decisions – positive discrimination, in other words.

Employers need to ‘reasonably think’ that people with a protected status are under-represented in the workforce or suffer a disadvantage connected to that protected characteristic and they can then take ‘proportionate’ actions.

Employers can select candidates, from a group that faces a disadvantage or is under-represented, in its workforce over candidates who are not in that group to achieve diversity in the workforce. However, this does not allow appointment of less suitable candidates just because they are in an under-represented or disadvantaged group.

Employers need to ‘reasonably think’ that people with a protected status are under-represented in the workforce or suffer a disadvantage connected to that protected characteristic and they can then take ‘proportionate’ actions. Reasonably think means there is some information/evidence indicating that conditions exists.

For example, looking at workforce profiles and/or making enquiries to other companies in the area/sector, national data, etc. Proportionate refers to the balancing of all the relevant factors in the light of the seriousness of the disadvantage suffered or the extent to which people are under-represented against the impact that the proposed action may have on other people. Proportionality is concerned with if the proposed action is the only way to address the under-representation or disadvantage effectively, or if it would be possible to achieve the same effect by other actions that are less likely to result in the less favourable treatment of other people.

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Key management issues in this form of positive action are as follows. First, taking positive action for employers is voluntary. Second, some protected characteristics are more readily identifiable than others, for example, gender versus religion. So, it may be difficult to determine if there is any under-representation of those with certain protected characteristics. Third, positive action is only allowed where it is a ‘proportionate’ way of addressing under-representation or disadvantage.


Government Equality Office (2010) Equality Act 2010: What To ??? Need To Know? A Quick Start Guide To Usinh Positive Action In Recruitment And Promotion.

Further reading

Why Women Say No to Corporate Boards and What Can Be Done. “Ornamental Directors” in Asia – from the Journal of Management Inquiry 2014 0:1056492614546263v11056492614546263; doi:10.1177/1056492614546263 | Read the abstract.

Round Glass Offices Architecture image courtesy Ayla87@freeimages.com

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