Privilege, inclusion and HR

In and around the discussions about diversity and inclusion at work, there is a growing conversation around the concept of privilege and how this impacts on individuals. It’s an interesting and compelling concept if you’ve not come across it previously. When people talk about privilege in this space it tends to be used in the context of race relations – primarily about the privilege that white people have and how this is manifest in day to day life both in favour of white people and against people of colour. It is also present in conversations around gender parity where men have privilege over women and this is present in both overt ways and in systemic ways in society and indeed in organisations. It is also prevalent in conversations to do with sexual orientation and gender identity.

I’m still exploring this concept myself and am careful to pass commentary on it.

If you’ve not come across the term in this context, it can be defined as:

Privilege exists when one group has something of value that another group does not, not because of anything that they have done or not done, but simply because of the groups that they belong to. Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance.

Peggy McIntosh via this blog post from Joe Gerstandt

Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance. Pretty powerful words.

And it’s a difficult concept too. It almost sounds like that in acknowledging this privilege it means that you’re a racist, a homophobe or a misogynist/misandrist by being part of any group. It’s less about being labelled in any way and more about acknowledging that privilege exists. Look again at that definition – it’s about the unearned advantage.

It’s as much about enforced societal norms as it is about overt and explicit discrimination as it is about unsaid rules and acceptance of ‘this is just the way things are’.

It’s also almost too difficult a topic to discuss well with others.

“Hey, I want to discuss your white male privilege and why you got chosen for that promotion over me” is a pretty challenging discussion to have. Even if you toned down the language and it became something like “I just wanted to congratulate you on your promotion. I went for it too, and it’s tough for me to understand the decision making of why you got chosen when we have similar experience and qualifications”.

There is a link to other concepts that we may know of such as implicit bias, cognitive bias of different sorts, stereotypes, out and out discrimination. There are those who willfully attack, harass, abuse and hurt others and wear their privilege with pride. There are those who may have only experienced good fortune and may not see that their privilege may have been a helping hand. And it’s almost too easy to use it in argument and say “see, that’s an example of your privilege right there”.

It’s also hard to know how we correct things like privilege.

As with many things to do with improved relationships and improved human connections, it’s about understanding ourselves, understanding what we were brought up with, and understanding how that influences our lives and choices that we make.

As a British-Indian male, raised during the 1980s, attending an independent school, I had privilege all around me and I didn’t even realise. I had the benefit of a private education, which shaped my future decision making around my career. I lived in a certain area which meant I had better choices around social activities and friendships I chose to have. I could make the choice to attend university and had the privilege of not needing to work during that time and lean on my parents to see me through. Privilege positively saw me through most of the first 25 years of my life.

In recognising that we all have privilege in different ways, we can start to acknowledge how that plays out and how we might experience that in different ways. But it requires some brave conversations to be had, and with trusted people who can help us explore things in helpful and supportive ways. As I’ve been exploring what privilege means, I’m also learning a lot about myself and my life choices. Some of that needs resolving and I need to better reflect on things.

In organisations, concepts like privilege raise even more questions – and many of them uncomfortable ones. We build in privilege into employment contracts. As an employee you are privy to certain employment rights at certain times. As well as those rights, you also have organsiational benefits available to you. Many of those are simply not present when it comes to zero hours contract staff – those privileges are taken away. Pay is the most obvious form of privilege in organisations. The more senior you are the higher salary you’re paid, and the more improved privileges are available to you. Why is it more common practise for senior leaders to have privileges such as company car allowances when such a thing would benefit lower paid workers more? Sure we can applaud companies like John Lewis for paying their ‘partners’ a share paying scheme, but that privilege only extends to their partners. Anyone working as a contractor or supplier doesn’t receive that privilege even though they may be part of the company make up.

Privilege also becomes manifest in teams in unspoken and accepted ways. We don’t discuss things like politics, emotions, or sexual orientation because society tells us that the accepted norm is to not discuss these openly and in healthy ways, and instead to accept that they are mostly private topics for discussion at home only. It also becomes manifest in overt and obvious ways. If you have a disability, your organisation or team may need to make reasonable adjustments for you – not because it’s your right, but because the workplace was designed for able-bodied people. Most work environments have to retrofit adjustments when they recruit someone with disabilities as opposed to designing a work environment where people with disabilities are already able to fulfil their duties.

If we care about inclusion at work – and many HR professionals claim they do – we have to start talking about privilege as part of that discussion. From what I’ve understood so far, there is still much to explore in this topic. It’s a hard one to understand, and is harder still to discuss openly. People take offence easily because this isn’t about outright discrimination or negative thoughts about others – it’s about unseen and unearned advantages. Those in receipt of those advantages can only claim that something like privilege is a myth of the minorities – and those in minorities can only claim that privilege is working against them by unseen and unfair systemic practices. It’s not even a chicken and egg thing – it’s a fundamental shift in understanding a broader narrative in discussing race, equality and inclusion.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

3 thoughts on “Privilege, inclusion and HR”

  1. I love your openness and frankness, and most of what you said really resonates. I’m white, but I’m a woman so some things apply to me and others do not. I am in a female-dominated profession, which can be helpful with regard to salary and benefits, but I am also in a professional medical society where initials indicating higher education carry too much weight, and those of us with a great deal of experience and knowledge often miss out because we are lacking in formal credentials. I do love that you always make me think about my own experiences and also those of the people around me.

    I do have a couple of comments, though. When you used the example of the promotion, don’t you think the appropriate person with whom to have that conversation is the person doing the promoting, not the colleague who was promoted over you? I’m fairly certain I would not talk with the person promoted about the potential preferential treatment he received. Even if (maybe especially if) he brought it up.

    Second, you mentioned having to retrofit spaces to accommodate disabled individuals. While planning set-aside spaces for ready accommodation for new-hire employees with disabilities sounds good on the surface, at least in the U.S. it isn’t a reasonable consideration in most cases. There are far fewer disabled individuals in the workforce and/or looking for work–about 20% of the total employable population vs. 80% able-bodied working-age adults ages 18-64 (as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor).

    There are fourteen discrete categories of disability listed on the U.S. Social Security Administration’s website, and there are multiple sub-categories under each of these. Because ‘disabled’ is a blanket term, as an employer you don’t know what accommodations might be needed by a newly-hired employee who is considered legally disabled. Some might just need a brighter or darker work space. Some might need a specific (but otherwise normal) desk chair. Some might need a full-on remodel of their space to accommodate a wheelchair or other equipment.

    Because you can’t possibly plan spaces that will accommodate all of these people, you are better off fitting your office out for the majority (you have to agree that 80% is not an insignificant number). This is really the only reasonable way to allow you to work within budget and space allotment for the majority of your employees. Plus, because accommodation is different for each person you are actually better able to serve newly hired, disabled individuals if you change an existing ‘normal’ workspace to meet their specific needs. It’s more like starting with a blank slate. At the very least, you would not be undoing expensive existing disability fittings because they don’t apply to the new employee. (Not going into the fact here that ‘special’ office equipment costs so much more than ‘normal.’ That’s a whole other blog and response!)

    And for many employers, especially those who employ a small number of people, renting space or owning a building and paying a mortgage and property taxes limits their options. For these employers, space is often at a premium and it simply isn’t reasonable to expect them to fit out or hold space in advance for disabled individuals they may or may not hire in the future.

    Since I don’t live in the UK and don’t know your employment laws, I can’t speak to your experience, but this is how it is here.

  2. I really like the framing of this discussion around privilege as it allows us to explore another side of inclusion. The extent to which privilege leads to exclusion and exclusive practices is hard to quantify but it does contribute towards societal inequities.

    Ultimately, society needs to offer everyone a sense of belonging, but as regards the workplace, everyone should be able to recognise it as a place they fit into, where the culture, values and behaviours are inclusive.

    The crital issue for me is what responsibility does the workplace (i.e. Leaders and staff) have to address these issues, and how? I think it’s about values-led leadership and behaviours. I wonder how many organisations prioritise these.

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