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A neoinstitutional study of firms that provide ‘reintegrative’ employment opportunities to former prisoners in a liberal individualist society
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posted on 22.02.2017by Burns, Prue Jacqueline
Institutional pressures within liberal individualist societies deny former prisoners a legitimate status in the mainstream workforce. These pressures generate organisational legitimacy concerns for firms that may be willing to offer to this cohort decent jobs which ‘more deserving’ members of the community might seek. The right-minded, socially acceptable, and pragmatic course of action for firms that have decent jobs to fill is to shun former prisoners. Thus former convicts are funnelled into unemployment or into ‘lousy jobs’ with few prospects for advancement. This systemic discrimination is troubling. Former convicts have already been punished for their transgressions and good jobs have been shown to support their reintegration into the community, which is ultimately in the interests of society.
Drawing on neoinstitutional theory, this thesis identifies the pressures that induce firms to exclude former prisoners from decent work opportunities in a liberal individualist society, and examines how a special class of ‘reintegrative’ firms manage to resist these pressures. These empirical contributions are shaped by a theoretical approach that takes up recent calls to reunify neoinstitutional theory with its phenomenological foundations. In so doing, the study responds to criticisms that neoinstitutional theory has failed to show how wider societal beliefs and values ‘rationalise’ certain forms of conduct and how these societal-level forces come to be embodied in everyday organisational practices and workplace interactions.
The research project is carried out via a study of four firms that provide reintegrative employment opportunities to former prisoners in the State of Victoria, in Australia. The analysis is conducted at two levels. ‘Up stream’, at the societal level, the cosmology of liberal individualism is analysed. The belief system and styles of thinking engendered by this philosophy are examined and then linked to ‘down stream’, local, shared attitudes and workplace behaviours at the ‘coalface’ of workforce reintegration.
The ultimate claim of the dissertation is that liberal individualism is a philosophy that is largely incompatible with workforce reintegration. In providing good jobs to former prisoners, reintegrative firms must ‘break the rules’ of this form of liberalism. In the process, these firms violate some of the most sacred ideals of liberalism and expose as fantasies some of its most cherished claims. Workforce reintegration can therefore be a disquieting organisational practice. Skilful ‘remedial work’ is crucial if reintegrative firms are to smooth over these violations and sustain their reintegrative hiring practices.
To pursue their idea of what is right and good, reintegrative firms must defy the institutional context in which they are embedded. While workforce reintegration remains an institutionally-contained practice, it will likely be tolerated by the broader community. Recently, however, state officials and policy makers within some liberal individualist societies have signalled their intention to get serious about prisoner reintegration. Should they indeed do so, they too may do well to master the arts of remedial work. For they may find there is a reckoning to be had with the polity, given workforce reintegration involves profaning sacred liberal ideals.