A reconstructive study of HR practitioners’ enactment of equality: the discourses of ‘legal guardianship’
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The thesis examines the enactment of workplace equality through an analysis of HR generalist talk. The primary data is contextualised by a review of the literature on HR, equality and diversity, and the regulatory terrain. The study is based on interviews with HR practitioners from 40 UK organisations of different sizes/sectors in 2014. The methodology underpinning the analysis is informed by a form of critical discourse analysis which considers lived experiences in their broader contexts (Edley, 2001). The findings indicate that operational HR practice in respect of equality and diversity is constituted mainly of compliance to the equality legislation. HR practitioners enact a ‘legal guardian’ (Wright & Snell, 2005) role, seeking first and foremost to protect their organisations from the threat of litigation. Legal guardianship is delegitimised by the dominant discourses of strategic HRM and diversity management. Nonetheless, the legal guardian role is orientated to mainstream HRM expectations of ‘contribution’ whilst also incorporating a more covert employee advocacy role, which is accomplished through various proxies. The level of complexity and breadth of HR practices associated with the achievement of equality compliance challenges perspectives of equality law as providing a low threshold of rights in the employment relationship. The findings and discussion further challenge the neat demarcation of HR from personnel management in the literature, presenting a perspective of HR practice that is both nuanced and relatively consistent across sectors. The thesis considers the means by which a regulatory role for HR is unintentionally ensured by the dominant HRM discourse. Talk of the HR/line manager relationship in the enactment of equality highlights that roles are relatively stable and that the HR function retains considerable control of processes and outcomes whilst demonstrating a commitment in talk to the principle of devolution. The thesis thereby problematizes the ongoing predication of ‘successful’ HRM on the devolution of operational people management to line managers, and the perspective that continuing devolution is the trajectory of practice. HR practitioner talk indicates the processes by which the equality legislation is given meaning and highlights the significance of the (thus far under-acknowledged) employment lawyer/HR practitioner relationship to understandings of HR and the enactment of equality.
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