Sub-theme 27: Discrimination at Work: The Causes and Consequences of Organizational Uncertainty and Inequality

Rick Delbridge
Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Markus Helfen
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Andreas Pekarek
The University of Melbourne, Australia

Call for Papers

Uncertainty and inequality at work constitute a grand challenge to social and economic wellbeing. Although stark disparities in income and wealth within and between countries are well documented and associated with significant political (e.g. growing political polarization and exclusionary rhetoric), social (e.g. poor health and well-being), economic (e.g. crime, reduced educational opportunity) and environmental costs and risks (e.g. climate damage through the extravagant lifestyles of the top of the income distribution), their root causes in organizing and organizations have only recently begun to (re-)gain attention in organization and management studies (e.g., Suddaby et al., 2018; Gray & Kish-Gephart, 2013; Stainback et al., 2010). A (re-)focusing on the world(s) of work (Delbridge & Sallaz, 2015) as central to organizational analysis promises additional analytical leverage for understanding and addressing these problems. It is evident that organizations (re-)produce material inequalities as well uncertainties by impacting on people’s life chances in various discriminatory ways, and are influenced in doing so by extant divisions in society with regards to gender, race, and other socio-demographic dimensions.
Various inequalities intersect in organizations, giving rise to battles over the causes and consequences of disadvantage and exclusion. This also makes them sites and targets of aspirational efforts for greater inclusion, integration, and collaboration – not least because of the adverse consequence of work-related uncertainty and inequality for organizational performance (Hamann & Bertels, 2018). Starting from this idea that organizations and organizing are inextricably tied to inequality and uncertainty in a mutually constitutive relationship, this sub-theme continues the interdisciplinary exchange between the fields of organization studies and industrial relations running through successful EGOS sub-themes in 2017, 2018, and 2019 by focusing on the structures, processes, and experiences that bring about inequality and uncertainty at work within organizations and through organizing. Our objective in this sub-theme is to provide the venue for the debate of such issues that is founded explicitly on the need for the examination of the links between current economic, workplace, political, social, and environmental problems and the structures of capitalism (Adler, 2019). We invite contributions that illuminate how labour shapes and is shaped by questions of inequality and what this means for contemporary and future world(s) of work.
Institutions. Institutional studies of various sorts have shown that regulatory choices at the national, regional and industry level can exacerbate organizational dynamics that lead to dualization, fragmentation and polarization in how work is governed and experienced by those at the “coalface” of production (e.g., Appelbaum & Schmitt, 2009; Thelen, 2014). This holds especially where deregulation drives people into more precarious and uncertain work arrangements, managerial efforts undermine (or outright attack) workers’ organizing into unions, representation rights and collective bargaining, and where employers actively create and maintain institutions that advantage them vis-à-vis labour by creating uncertainty for workers (e.g., Helfen, 2015). At the same time, institutional conservatism might lead to perverse effects of cementing inequalities such as the differential treatment of core and peripheral workforces (Doeringer & Piore, 1971), those with ongoing employment contracts and those workings as temps and ‘independent’ contractors (e.g., Kalleberg, 2013), or workers in different parts of the global supply chain (Anner et al., 2013). What’s more, newly designed institutions and rules for combating discrimination in the workplace might amount to little more than symbolism (Edelman, 2016). However, we know little about how different managerial strategies and varied institutional pressures play out at the meso-level connecting employment systems and workplace regimes in single organizations with the sectoral fabric of production (but see Morris at al., 2018). – Questions may include:

  • How do different institutions and institutional configurations shape inequality at work?

  • To what extent have deregulated labour markets made it easier for employers to exploit unemployment and low wages in global platform capitalism?

  • Are any alternative institutions and organizational templates (B-corps, mutuals, cooperatives) in sight that may allow for less discrimination and uncertainty?

  • How do certification (e.g. sustainability) and occupational institutions (e.g. vocational credentials, professional codes of conduct) amplify or ameliorate discrimination at work?

  • Within and across countries, what new regulatory approaches exist for fostering industrial civic rights and collective action to reduce discrimination and uncertainty in the workplace?

Processes and practices. Although organization produces inequality and uncertainty not much is known (or has been forgotten) about the processes and practices that bring this about on an everyday basis (but see Bidwell et al., 2013). For example, traditional management practices are suspected of contributing to inequality inasmuch as these are reflective of salient myths such as efficiency and meritocracy in their institutional environment, so that organizations reproduce inequality through taken-for-granted work practices including recruitment and hiring, promotion, compensation, role allocation, and the underpinning formal and informal systems of culture and bureaucracy (Amis et al., 2019). Previous assessment of contemporary management practices has highlighted the fragmentary effects and increasing uncertainty experienced by employees (Jenkins & Delbridge, 2007); the ‘conflicted collaboration’ of teamworking (Delbridge, 2007). This grim reality casts doubt on the capacity of ‘responsible leadership’, ‘sustainable HRM’ and other ‘enlightened’ or ‘high-road’ models of management often promoted in textbooks to serve as meaningful correctives to discrimination and inequality at work. – Questions may include:

  • How might employers, individually or collective, tackle or reinforce social inequalities through novel practices of workforce management?

  • How can new practices, procedures and rules be effectively enforced?

  • To what extent might awareness of intersectionality help in devising new practices to address discrimination within and beyond organizations?

Consequences. Although the adverse socio-economic effects of inequality are widely recognized, less is known about how unequal organizational processes and outcomes affect cognitions, emotions, and behaviours of workers and other organizational stakeholders. A critical question concerns whether and how discrimination and disadvantage triggers resistance and mobilization, not least as the spread of the platform economy takes worker exploitation to new levels (Healy et al., 2017). A growing literature on workplace dignity has already explored how the experience of inequality in organizations shapes workers’ identities (e.g., Lamont et al., 2014; Lucas, 2015), and how workers’ attitudes, awareness and resilience towards uncertainty and inequality vary. Yet we need to learn more about the implications of these sentiments for whether inequality is challenged, and how external stakeholders such as social movements (e.g., MeToo) or various forms of workers organizing (unions, workers centres0 might mobilize to challenge discriminatory corporate agendas and practices by proffering alternative, critical discourses and framings (Gahan & Pekarek, 2013). – Questions may include:

  • How does the differential treatment of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ workforces shape social interactions in the fragmented work organization?

  • How do different inequalities manifest in the everyday experience of work and how do these play out in non-work areas of individuals’ life?

  • How are identities rooted in (e.g. industry, profession) and outside of the workplace (religion, sexual orientation) mobilized to perpetuate or disrupt inequality in organizations?

  • What are the experiences of those working in support of the disadvantaged and precarious segments of labour markets?

  • How is the emergence of new digital technologies and the attendant ‘apocalyptic’ discourses of revolution and disruption being experienced by employees?

  • What are the implications of digitalization, automation and technological change for uncertainty and inequality at work?

  • What might be techniques of countermobilization to combat app-enabled forms of control, exploitation and inequality?

  • What is the scope and potential of joint mobilizing of more traditional and older advocates of the labour’s cause?

Based on the above, we invite short papers that aim to deepen our understanding of work-inequality nexus in and around organizations and locates this in the current economic, political, social, and environmental contexts of workplaces. We are interested in research that examines the uncertainties that these and other developments may hold and their likely impact of the inequitable nature of the workplace. We are particularly interested in current manifestations of uncertainty and inequality as experienced by workers and variations by geography, political economy, sector and the nature of work. We are interested in both empirical and conceptual papers that engage with comparative institutional analysis, various forms of institutional work, and the enactment of labour processes and work organizations as well the management of meta-organizations. To the same extent, we are curious about contributions from diverse theoretical perspectives such as social movement theory, CSR & corporate sustainability, Marxist organization studies, the sociology of the professions, micro-politics, labour law or diversity management.


  • Adler, P. (2019): The 99 Percent Economy: How Democratic Socialism Can Overcome the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Amis, J.M., Mair, J., & Munir, K. (2019): “The organizational reproduction of inequality.” Academy of Management Annals, 14 (1), 195–230.
  • Anner, M., Bair, J., & Blasi, J. (2013): “Toward joint liability in global supply chains: Addressing the root causes of labor violations in international subcontracting networks.” Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, 35 (1), 1–43.
  • Appelbaum, E. & Schmitt, J. (2009): “Low-wage work in high-income countries: Labor-market institutions and business strategy in the US and Europe.” Human Relations, 62 (12), 1907–1934.
  • Bidwell, M., Briscoe, F., Fernandez-Mateo, I., & Sterling, A. (2013): “The employment relationship and inequality: How and why changes in employment practices are reshaping rewards in organizations.” Academy of Management Annals, 7 (1), 61–121.
  • Delbridge, R. (2007): “Explaining conflicted collaboration: A critical realist approach to hegemony.” Organization Studies, 28 (9), 1347–1357.
  • Delbridge, R. & Sallaz, J.J. (2015): “Work: Four worlds and ways of seeing.” Organization Studies, 36 (11), 1449–1462.
  • Doeringer, P.B., & Piore, M.J. (1971): Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis. New York: Heath.
  • Edelman, L. (2016): Working Law. Courts, Corporations, and Symbolic Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Gahan, P., & Pekarek, A. (2013): “Social movement theory, collective action frames and union theory: A critique and extension.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, 51 (4), 754–776.
  • Gray, B., & Kish-Gephart, J.J. (2013): “Encountering social class differences at work: How ‘class work’ perpetuates inequality.” Academy of Management Review, 38 (4), 670–699.
  • Hamann, R., & Bertels, S. (2018): “The institutional work of exploitation: Employers’ work to create and perpetuate inequality.” Journal of Management Studies, 55 (3), 394–423.
  • Healy, J., Nicholson, D., & Pekarek, A. (2017): “Should we take the gig economy seriously? Labour & Industry: A journal of the social and economic relations of work, 27 (3), 232–248.
  • Helfen, M. (2015): “Institutionalizing precariousness? The politics of boundary work in legalizing agency work in Germany, 1949–2004.” Organization Studies, 36 (10), 1387–1422.
  • Jenkins, S.L., & Delbridge, R. (2007): “Disconnected workplaces: Interests and identities in the ‘high performance’ factory.” In: S.C. Bolton & M. Houlihan (eds.): Searching for the Human in Human Resource Management: Theory, Practice and Workplace Contexts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 195–218.
  • Kalleberg, A.L. (2013): Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s–2000s. New York: Russell Sage.
  • Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006): “Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies.” American Sociological Review, 71 (4), 589–617.
  • Lamont, M., Beljean, S., & Clair, M. (2014): “What is missing? Cultural processes and causal pathways to inequality.” Socio-Economic Review, 12 (3), 573–608.
  • Lucas, K. (2015): “Workplace dignity: Communicating inherent, earned, and remediated dignity.” Journal of Management Studies, 52 (5), 621–646.
  • Morris, J., Delbridge, R., & Endo, T. (2018): “The layering of meso-level institutional effects on corporate governance and employment systems in Japan.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, 56 (3), 603–630.
  • Thelen, K. (2014): Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stainback, K., Tomaskovic-Devey, D., & Skaggs, S. (2010): “Organizational approaches to inequality: Inertia, relative power, and environments.” Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 225–247.
  • Suddaby, R., Bruton, G.D., & Walsh, J.P. (2018): “What we talk about when we talk about inequality: An introduction to the Journal of Management Studies special issue.” Journal of Management Studies, 55 (3), 381–393.
  • Vidal, M., Adler, P., & Delbridge, R. (2015): “When organization studies turns to societal problems: The contribution of Marxist grand theory.” Organization Studies, 36 (4), 405–422.

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organizational Analysis at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, United Kingdom. He has published widely in leading international journals across the range of employment relations, management and organization studies. His current research interests include work, workplace relations and the management of innovation. He was co-organizer of the Marxist Organization Studies sub-theme at several previous EGOS Colloquia and guest edited a special themed section on this topic for ‘Organization Studies’ in 2015.
Markus Helfen is a Research Fellow at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. He has recently published in leading management and industrial relations journals like ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Human Relations’, the ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’, and the ‘International Journal of Human Resource Management’. His research focuses on management, industrial and employment relations, advances in institutional theory and collective action in inter-firm networks.
Andreas Pekarek is a Lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing at The University of Melbourne, Australia. He has published in such journals as the ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’, ‘Industrial Relations Journal’, ‘European Journal of Industrial Relations’, and ‘Industrial and Labor Relations Review’. His research focuses on unions and worker representation, collective bargaining, professional work, and interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to work, HRM and industrial relations.