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Formal Equality vs. Substantive Equality in the Workplace Video

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  • 0:04 Two Types of Workplace…
  • 0:58 Formal Equality
  • 2:31 Substantive Equality
  • 3:52 A Brief Example
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Reed

Danielle works in digital marketing and advertising. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and an MBA.

In this lesson, we discuss formal equality and substantive equality. These two types of equality impact corporate professionals on a daily basis because applying rules to unequal groups leads to uneven results.

Two Types of Workplace Equality

Have you ever felt less than or marginalized in at least one aspect of your life? Whether it was a minor or major incident, every person has experienced some form of inequality or at least an instance of unfairness. It goes without saying that this doesn't feel great for anyone. This is why, in the workplace, professionals deserve equality on all fronts. There are two types of equality to consider:

  1. Formal equality, which is a belief that, for fairness, people must be consistently or equally treated at all times.
  2. Substantive equality, which goes beyond the basics of recognizing the equality of everyone and identifies differences among groups of people with the long-term goal of greater understanding.

Each is about making sure all employees are comfortable at work, but substantive equality takes an extra step to provide equal opportunities. Let's explore the differences between formal and substantive equality and see how these scenarios apply to the workplace.

Formal Equality

At work, formal equality appears as a written set of rules that dictates the equal treatment of all people within an organization. One example happens when positions open to all (qualified) candidates available for hire. This means any person with a fair application has a chance of getting the job.

Formal equality operates on the idea that all people should be treated as the same, yet innate human behavior is flawed. All people operate with some baseline perspective about race, privilege, or age. It does not consider workplace privilege, which occurs when one person has advantages or realizes benefits over another, even unintentionally.

Even though formal equality and written rules are built with positive intentions, their applications to unequal groups have unequal results. Formal equality does not consider majority and minority groups, which means majority groups are often unfairly favored. The majority group is a group in a demographic with the most members in it. For example, it may seem like a fair rule to require all people on your team to wear their hair short and cut to the chin, but this does not account for employees with religious differences.

An advantage of formal equality is that it produces a written set of principles and rules that are followed for all business decisions. When applied universally and without prejudice, a blanket set of rules does not favor any party. The disadvantages of formal equality include:

  • No deeper understanding of culture
  • Feeling disadvantaged in the workplace
  • Never reaching the root of inequality
  • Encouraging a disjointed workplace culture
  • Leading to uneven results in hiring practices

Substantive Equality

As stated earlier, substantive equality goes beyond the basics of recognizing the equality of all and identifies differences among groups of people with the long-term goal of greater understanding. Substantive equality attempts to remove the systemic advantages afforded to majority groups. An example of substantive equality in the workplace would be hiring protected status veterans or giving preference to other minority groups, like members of the LGBT community. On a small scale, cultural sensitivity training is an excellent way to promote substantive equality among team members. Instead of formal equality practices that lump everyone into one group, substantive equality makes an attempt to consider differences and then adjust for them.

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