Does Good Performance Reduce Bad Behavior? Antecedents of Ethnic Employment Discrimination in Public Organizations

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
666 Public Administration Review Septe mber | Oct ober 2 019
Jesper N. Wulff is assistant professor in
the Department of Economics and Business
Economics, Aarhus University. As an
applied statistician, he is mainly interested
in statistical myths and urban legends
in strategic management. He also works
with colleagues on statistical and machine
learning problems in finance, management,
and health. His research has been published
in journals such as
Organizational Research
Methods, Academy of Management
Stata Journal
Anders R. Villadsen is professor in
the Department of Management at Aarhus
University, School of Business and Social
Sciences. His research interests include
employee diversity, sector differences, and
management and leadership in the public
sector. His research has been published in
journals such as
Academy of Management
Discoveries, Journal of Public Administration
Research and Theory,
Administration Review
Abstract: Equal treatment is a key feature of modern bureaucracy. However, several studies have shown that public
organizations discriminate against ethnic and racial minorities to different degrees. Which organizational features
explain differences in discrimination is largely unknown. This article proposes that organizational performance
relates to an organization’s likelihood of engaging in employment discrimination and argues that poor-performing
organizations tend to be less open to new ideas and that decision makers in such organizations are more prone to
stereotyping behavior. The study combines a field experiment in which applications were sent to real job vacancies in
71 Danish public schools with administrative data on the schools. Bayesian analyses show that minority applicants
generally faced discrimination but that they experienced a higher callback rate from better-performing schools than
from poorer-performing schools. Implications for practice and research are discussed.
Evidence for Practice
Public organizations are more likely to engage in employment discrimination against ethnic minorities
during periods of poor performance.
During times of poor performance, managers rely on proven strategies and are more likely to be susceptible
to implicit biases.
Evidence suggests that Danish schools performing even moderately above the national average performance
almost eliminate differential treatment of job applicants based on ethnicity.
Employment discrimination is highly contextual, and organizational performance appears to be an
important predictor.
Thorbjørn Sejr Guul
Anders R. Villadsen
Jesper N. Wulff
Aarhus University
Thorbjørn Sejr Guul is assistant
professor in the Department of Political
Science, Aarhus University, and fellow at
TrygFonden’s Centre for Child Research.
His research focuses on representative
bureaucracy, discrimination, and coping
behavior of street-level bureaucrats. He has
published in journals such as the
Journal of
Public Administration Research and Theory
Public Administration Review
Does Good Performance Reduce Bad Behavior? Antecedents
of Ethnic Employment Discrimination in Public
Equality of treatment in the public sector has
been described as fundamental to American
notions of democracy (Gooden 2015) and a
key feature of modern bureaucracy (Weber 1947;
Lipsky 2010). A recent and growing literature studies
whether citizens experience equal treatment or
discrimination, particularly based on ethnicity or race
(Grohs, Adam, and Knill 2016; Jilke, Van Dooren,
and Rys 2018; Pedersen, Stritch, and Thuesen 2018).
The extent to which public organizations engage in
discrimination varies across studies. An obvious reason
for this might be that the extent of discrimination
varies with organizational characteristics (e.g., agency
type, as suggested by Battaglio and Hall [2018]).
However, the question of which organizational
features explain differences in discriminatory behavior
have largely been considered a “black box” in previous
studies (Gooden 2015). Therefore, we do not
know why these patterns occur or how to mitigate
discriminatory behavior (Gooden 2015).
This article focuses on sources of hiring
discrimination in the public sector, which is important
for several reasons. First, street-level bureaucrats
have considerable discretion to carry out their work
when interacting with citizens (Lipsky 2010). This
makes it difficult for public managers to manage
directly what street-level bureaucrats do when they
implement public policies (Lipsky 2010). Therefore,
one of the most crucial aspects of public management
might relate to hiring the best possible employees.
Second, and relatedly, as argued by Riccucci and Van
Ryzin (2017), studies of representative bureaucracy
associate minority representation with more equal
outcomes through a more inclusive work climate
(Andrews and Ashworth 2015), less misconduct
by street-level bureaucrats (Hong 2017), higher
willingness to coproduce (Riccucci, Van Ryzin, and
Li 2016), and, in general, better citizen outcomes
(Guul 2018). Finally, while there are relatively few
studies of employment discrimination in the public
sector (Leasher and Miller 2012), some recent
studies indicate that ethnic minorities are also at a
disadvantage when applying for jobs in the public
sector (Carlsson and Rooth 2007; Villadsen and Wulff
2018; but see also Baekgaard and George 2018).
Research Article
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 5, pp. 666–674. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13094.

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