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The invisible power of BESTA coding: Processes around a statistical tool among Swedish governmental employers
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Centre for Gender Research.
2015 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

This paper examines how processes around a statistical reporting tool in the Swedish public administration, the BESTA classification system, influences power relations between governmental employers, their employees and trade unions, as the different actors use this tool to influence decision making on pay. It shows that a group of organizational actors, HR staff, which is often seen as marginal to organizational decision making, actually does have a certain degree of invisible power.

The analysis is mainly based on structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) which provides an explanation of the relationship between organisational structure, routines and human actions.  Lamont & Beljean & Clair’s (2014) concept of cultural processes in organizations is also used, as it is a concept suited to analyzing routine organizational processes which unintentionally produce and reproduce inequality. The empirical data consists of interviews and a workshop with personnel administrators in different governmental agencies and interviews with trade union representatives.

In BESTA, each governmental employment position is coded indicating the area of work and the qualification level. The classification system is materialized in the BESTA handbook. The employers supply the National Agency for Government Employers (below called the Agency) with the codings and salaries of all their employees, and, in return, can assess the statistics and get reports about national salary levels.

This paper focuses on the process of coding new positions. BESTA is involved in several other organizational processes: Yearly salary negotiations which most often happen between employer and union representatives, salary revisions (for example the mandatory comparisons every three years between men’s and women’s salaries) and sometimes layoffs.

According to structuration theory, organizations (and other social systems) are comprised of actions carried out by human actors who are mutually dependent on each other. Processes and routines are expressed through different rules and resources that enable and limit the practices. The dimensions signification, legitimation, and domination provide continuity to processes and routines over time and enable the interdependent relationships between the actors to be reproduced or transformed (Giddens, 1984).The different power relationships and actions taken by different actors in relation to the BESTA codes affect both the coding process and pay levels.    

Cultural processes, as defined by Lamont & Beljean & Clair (2014) create inequality as a side effect of an organizational routine, involving both individual and interactional aspects. BESTA coding is normally done by an individual HR official, who may consult the manager of the new employee. Sometimes the decision is collective, in that HR staff consult each other or use written cheat sheets or implicit agreements. The code is negotiated with the trade union representatives, but in case of disagreement the employer’s choice is valid.

A categorization process is execution of power. Categorization is always a definition of that which is categorized, as no categorization system takes into account all aspects of what is categorized. The process of categorization privileges some aspects of a phenomenon and suppresses others. It lays a foundation for the subsequent evaluation of the different categories in relation to each other, for example in distribution of status or material benefits (Jones, 2009).

The mandate of the HR staff to categorize is an example of a resource that enables domination (Giddens, 1984).Even if negotiations with union representatives can alter the coding decisions, the code decided by the HR representative, with its possible biases, is the starting point of the discussion.  And when negotiations end in disagreement the power clearly belongs to the HR staff. The resulting code is then a tool in salary negotiations.

The HR staff, however, do not experience this power. They describe BESTA as a purely statistical tool and the coding as a minor and unimportant part of their job. Much of the BESTA coding happens by habit, which is a characteristic of cultural processes (Lamont & Beljean & Clair, 2014).

However, while asserting that BESTA codes are only a statistical tool, when discussing the codes, the HR staff recurrently tell about relationships between code and salary in organizational practices: First and foremost, even if there are no formal obstacles to salary overlaps between different qualification levels of a code, and they to some degree do occur, the norm in salary negotiations is to keep into the salary range for the code. Secondly, as local salary comparisons and revisions normally take the codes as their starting point, faulty codings (e.g. a position on a lower qualification level than would be appropriate) can conceal undue salary differences.  Thirdly, sometimes the salary, rather than work tasks, decides the code, and the relationship between the code and the salary becomes circular. The underlying rules for coding and pay setting are thus mixed and sometimes even conflicting (Giddens, 1984).

The official status of BESTA as a reporting tool is also used as an explanation for why employees are not informed about the existence of the code system or their own codes. The idea of having a number of employees arguing about their codes is very unattractive for HR officials who see the coding as a minor task. This furtiveness about the codes could be interpreted as a strategy from the HR staff to keep an employer power base unknown to employees. However, the interviews indicate that it can also simply be interpreted as a wish to not be questioned, because the coding process is insecure. In addition, justified complaints would mean extra work and introducing undesirable instability in the system.

Thus, the material object, the BESTA classification manual, becomes a tool in cultural processes, which contribute to unequal power relationships between employers (and within employer organizations between HR personnel and managers), unions and employees, and which have a potential to result in unequal salary outcomes– in spite of the original ambition of BESTA to be a tool by which such inequalities could be detected and corrected.


Jones, Reece (2009) Categories, borders and boundaries. Progress in Human Geography 33 (2) 174-189.

Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lamont, Michele & Beljean, Stefan & Clair, Matthew (2014) What is missing? Cultural processes and causal pathways to inequality. Socio-Economic Review, 12: 573-608.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Categorization, HR, organization, gender
National Category
Work Sciences
Research subject
Business Studies; Sociology
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-258968OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-258968DiVA: diva2:842869
7th International Process Symposium. Kos, June 23.-26.6. 2015
Jämställdhet på BESTA-sätt
Available from: 2015-07-23 Created: 2015-07-23 Last updated: 2015-07-23

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