South African standard on employment equity, diversity and inclusion ushers in a new area for creating inclusive workplaces


South African standard on employment equity, diversity and inclusion ushers in a new area for creating inclusive workplaces
by Marius Meyer

Since South Africa became a democracy two decades ago, government and unions have been at the forefront of championing employment equity in the workplace.  However, the performance of business in the area of employment equity has been disappointing and after twenty-two years we have failed to transform workplaces.  On the other hand, several government departments managed to achieve and exceed employment equity targets, so much so that these organisations have started to recruit whites in recent advertising campaigns. Sadly though, government’s good progress in employment equity occurred in some cases at the expense of service delivery.  In the private sector, not even the Employment Equity Act, coupled with several versions of broad-based black economic empowerment laws and codes have managed to make a significant difference to employment equity profiles of organisations.  Incidents of tokenism and window-dressing have been the norm for more than two decades. While it was believed that legislated employment equity plans would turn things around, unfortunately these plans managed to only make progress in the area of gender equity, so much so that South Africa is now one of the top 30 countries in the world regarding gender equity in senior management. Yet, despite the rhetoric of the rainbow nation, our underperformance in workplace racial equity and disability remains an ongoing challenge.

Against this backdrop of perpetual inequality in the workplace, the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the quality assurance and HR professional body managed to develop a set of 23 Human Resource (HR) Professional Practice Standards during 2014. This is part of the first set of national HR standards world-wide in an attempt to reduce inconsistencies in HR practice and to improve the quality of HR work in organisations throughout South Africa.  Moreover, it will also standardise approaches to current challenges in areas such as absenteeism management, leadership development and change management.  The standard will focus on addressing the current poor progress in the critical area of employment equity by drafting specific standards in this area.  One of these standards is entitled employment equity and diversity (inclusion) management to address the lack of progress in this important area of transformation.   True employment equity cannot be achieved without good diversity management practices.  The need for creating inclusive workplaces is at the core of sound diversity and employment equity practices.  An inclusive approach to employment equity and diversity management means that an organisation must always create an environment inclusive of all diversity groups.  The aim is to turn around the current approach of making business and people decisions without involvement of the designated groups. In other words, it should not be possible to make a decision about disabled people without people with disabilities involved. The same principle applies to race and gender in the workplace.

The SABPP standard on employment equity, diversity management and inclusion is defined as the systematic application of HR Management processes towards attaining and retaining a state of employment equity whilst developing a competent workforce to achieve social justice and organisational objectives in an organisation where diverse employees are highly engaged because they feel valued, respected, supported and treated as insiders within the organisation.   The standard goes on to assert that a state of employment equity will only be reached when all previously disadvantaged groups are equitably represented in all occupationally categories and levels in the workforce sustainably over time.  With the current slow progress in employment equity it may take another thirty years before workplace racial equality is eventually achieved – a situation that is simply not acceptable after so many years of a democratic dispensation in South Africa.

In addition to the definition outlined above, the standard specifies fundamental requirements for good employment equity and diversity inclusion practices.  These fundamental requirements are as follows:

  • Top management should lead, direct, visibly support and role model the policies, practices and behaviours required to achieve employment equity and inclusion.
  • Employment equity progress often entails making difficult choices which should be clearly identified and analysed and conscious decisions made, and these decisions should then be clearly communicated to everyone in the organisation.
  • Responsibility for employment equity should be shared between line management (which is accountable to stakeholders for employment equity progress) and HR (which should support line management with good policies, practices and development).
  • Employment equity is a key organisational strategy and should therefore be appropriately catered for in performance management and remuneration practices.
  • Achievement of employment equity, particularly at the skilled, professional and management levels, requires careful analysis and planning and the adoption of a long term planning and implementation approach which builds appropriate pipelines.
  • Internal barriers to employment equity progress often include that diversity/inclusion practices are insincere or inadequate. The Code of Good Practice requirements to conduct analyses of barriers and enablers should be implemented in a manner appropriate to the organisation.
  • HR leaders in the organisation should ensure that awareness levels around diversity/inclusion issues are high and real conversations take place about problems and solutions.
  • Sustainable employment equity will not be achieved without positive perceptions of inclusion amongst all employee groupings. A narrow focus on diversity will not necessarily lead to these positive perceptions.  Specific diagnoses and interventions are required to decrease perceptions of dominance by one group’s culture and an organisational culture which is not comfortable for others.  Issues such as prevalence of sexual harassment and verbal intimidation through the unnecessary use of gender, culture, religion and race references indicate a lack of inclusion in the organisation’s culture, either generally or within certain sections of the organisation.
  • Practices such as inflation of job titles to reach employment equity in higher levels, fronting to acquire BBBEE tenders, “poaching” of employment equity talent to the exclusion of investment into development for internal candidates; inflation of remuneration packages for employment equity recruits which creates internal inequities; and unbalanced use of “golden handcuffs” are unethical and create unfairness and inequities within the organisation.

I am sure that very few business leaders will argue against the principles of employment equity and diversity management.  Surely, no business leader wants to be accused of being discriminatory or exclusive in terms of its employment and workplace practices.   Being untransformed is not only evidence of social inequality, it also poses significant reputational risk for business.  However, effective implementation of employment equity has been as elusive as the achievement of employment equity targets. Chasing employment equity targets in the absence of an integrated employment equity and diversity management strategy has been one of the major reasons for the lack of progress in employment equity.  Hence, building on the fundamental requirements of the new national standard on employment equity and diversity management, the standard continues with a three phase strategy for implementation:

  1. A commitment to social justice, equity and inclusion: This means that management commits to social justice, equity and inclusion by admitting that inequality is wrong and can only be corrected with decisive strategy and action.
  2. Organisational productivity and effectiveness plan: While the social justice commitment is key, employment equity and diversity is a business imperative for driving business results. For instance, if a large number of your customers is in townships, it makes business sense to employ staff from townships to serve the needs of this market segment. The organisational productivity and effectiveness plan should cover the five phases of analysis, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  3. Diverse, inclusive and engaged workforce: If the first two phases are implemented successfully, the third phase is to achieve and maintain a diverse, inclusive and engaged workforce. During this phase you focus on building and celebrating diversity and ensuring that all employees are actively engaged and retained.  Ensuring an inclusive and empowering work environment is the end-result of effective employment equity and diversity management implementation.

The new South African HR professional practice standard on employment equity and diversity management ushers in a new era of creating truly inclusive work places – places where all employees irrespective of their diversity profile can be themselves and deliver their best performance for their organisations.  At a national level, we cannot afford to waste another twenty years with no or slow progress in employment equity.  The perpetuation of workplace and social inequality remains one of the biggest obstacles to labour and social stability in South Africa.

Looking beyond legislative compliance only, the standard challenges organisations to balance social justice with building a business-driven approach to employment equity and diversity management in an inclusive way, thereby ultimately leveraging diversity for both compliance and business purposes.  I am challenging organisations to apply the fundamental requirements and implementation strategy of the standard.  Diversity is not a problem, it is a business opportunity to create an inclusive and diverse workforce fully empowered to serve their equally diverse customers in the best possible way.  Applying the spirit and guidelines contained in the SABPP diversity and employment equity standard positions your dynamic approach to people management in a proactive and inclusive manner for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Marius Meyer

Marius Meyer is CEO of SABPP.  You can follow him on twitter @MariusSABPP and SABPP on @SABPP1. He will be a keynote speaker at the 4th Annual National HR Standards Conference on 27 July in Midrand.  The programme is available on


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