The experience of affirmative action in a public organisation
Van der Merwe, Louisa
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South Africa is experiencing a process of formidable and fundamental change. Public administrators as well as politicians are under tremendous pressure as heavy demands are being placed on them. These demands include coping with interventions such as Affirmative Action, Employment Equity, and the importance of managing diversity in the workplace. Despite improvements in race relations in the past twenty years, dysfunctional and ineffective behaviour still occur. This may be a reflection of the discomfort and anxiety experienced by employees in the work setting. In order to comply with legislation, organisations created opportunities for Black, Asian and Coloured males and females, White females and disabled people. This, in return, leads to perceptions of preferential hiring. The view that Affirmative Action involves preferential hiring and treatment based on group membership creates resistance to its implementation and original purpose. The reason for this resistance might be linked to the fact that people still perceive discrimination and injustice in the workplace. These perceptions seem true in public organisations even though public organisations have taken a positive stance with regard to implementing Equal Employment and Affirmative Action plans. A qualitative design with an availability sample (N = 20) of employees working in a public organisation was used. The qualitative research makes it possible to determine the subjective experience of employees in a public organisation. Semi-structured interviews based on the phenomenological method were conducted with employees working in different sections and different positions in a public organisation. Non-directive questions were asked during the interview. The tape-recording of the interview was transcribed verbatim in order to analyse the information. Content analysis was used to analyse and interpret the research data in a systematic, objective and quantitative way. A literature-control has been done to investigate relevant research in order to determine the comparativeness and uniqueness of the current research. Results indicated that Affirmative Action has been used as a tool in achieving its goal by focusing on preferential hiring. From the responses it was clear that the majority of the participants are of opinion that preferential hiring led to the appointment of incompetent candidates. It appears from the interviews that appointments are made without basing it on merit. This is against the basic principle of the public organisation of hiring and promoting employees by set standards. Due to the fact that previous disadvantaged groups are being placed in positions of which they have no experience or are not trained in, job related knowledge seems to present a problem. From the interviews it appeared that employees felt that poor customer service increased across the organisation due to the appointment of incompetent candidates. This also seems to have an effect on the workload being handled. It seems that predominantly white employees tend to be ambivalent towards Affirmative Action. Part of the reason for this ambivalence is the fear of change, especially when that change involves a radical re-thinking of past strategies. White employees, employed by the old apartheid system, feel alienated and/or marginalised in the new Affirmative Action process. White employees are also leaving organisations because they seem not to be part of the Affirmative Action process. This leads to loss of expertise occurring in organisations. Though organisations show a considerable amount of improvement on relationships between black and white, discrimination still seems to present itself through the implementation of Affirmative Action. Managing diversity is crucial for the effective management and development of people. It is important not to focus only on cultural differences but also concentrate on individual needs and perceptions. Unfortunately, it appears that South Africa is in the process of making the same mistakes as other countries in focusing on a power game and corruption. Black employees in particular, seem to be actively recruited, placed in senior positions and given the related finishing. In other words top management are using their 'power' to enforce Affirmative Action. There are also those who want to abuse the system or maybe understand the system incorrectly. Corruption coming from top management tends to make employees negative. In order to address these issues, a succession and career planning process needs to exist which is closely tied to the organisations' strategic plan. Employment Equity, as a strategic objective, is managed by the organisation, but needs the Human Resources function in a support and consultancy role. As such, it requires translation into practical objectives for departments, managers and employees. Recommendations were made for future research.