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Affirmative Action What You Need To Know

August 1, 1995
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Featured Article
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Elmer Jackson is different from many involved in the affirmative action discussion. He's old enough to clearly remember life before affirmative action, to recall when minorities weren't welcome in restaurants or factories, and when non-white students at the University of Kansas were segregated off-campus because homeowners refused to rent to them. Jackson, the general director of employment relations for General Motors North American Operation in Detroit, knows just how far Corporate America has come in its treatment of minorities and women in the last 30 years.

In 1963, before the Civil Rights Act, Jackson started his 30-plus year career with GM as a security guard in a Kansas City assembly plant for Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Pontiacs. He was the first black employee in his department, and one of the first hired into a salaried division.

With a bachelor's degree, Jackson was obviously overqualified for the position. "There's no doubt in my mind that the plant's receptivity to bringing me into that position was because of the Civil Rights Movement. I firmly believe that the activity where people were demonstrating for civil rights sensitized Corporate America," he says. It was against that backdrop of sensitivity that the plant took a person like Jackson-who was qualified-into the organization. Jackson, who had just married, was attending law school when his father's law partner told him about the position, which he decided to apply for. He stayed in that position for only three months and then moved up into a college graduate-in-training program for the personnel department and ended up in labor relations.

"Today it's not an issue that the doors aren't open. It's more an issue of removing organizational and cultural obstacles that may block people from moving up in these organizations."

Now, at 55 years old, Jackson hears the debates surrounding affirmative action and grapples with the same question many Americans are asking: Is a legal mandate for hiring minorities still necessary?

Certainly America isn't what it was 30 years ago. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, minority workers account for up to 23% of today's work force, compared to 10.7% in 1964 when affirmative action went into effect. And today's minorities comprise a much greater variety of ethnicities and cultures than in '64.

The number of women also has grown substantially since the Civil Rights Act was passed 30 years ago. In 1964, women made up 34% of the work force. In 1994, they accounted for up to 46% and comprised 42% of all managers and professionals.

Throughout the 30 years this work-force composition has been forming, Corporate America has learned a vital lesson. Slowly, almost imperceptively at times, we have come to realize that diversity in the work force is a business imperative that directly impacts the bottom line.

So the question becomes: Are affirmative-action mandates still necessary for business, or do we need more mechanisms for maintaining and managing diversity? As Jeff A. Norris, president of the Equal Employment Advisory Council says: "For us to be competitive domestically and internationally, and to be deemed an employer of choice by a diverse work force, we need to do more than simply see if there's a level playing field. We need to do more than minimal compliance."

Jackson agrees: "Today, it's not an issue that the doors aren't open. Corporations aren't putting up barriers to keep out minorities and women. It's more an issue of removing organizational and cultural obstacles that may block them from moving up in these organizations."

Indeed, when affirmative-action programs first began, they were viewed as a way of including all members of the society who had faced discrimination. They were seen as a first step in making up for past inequities and truly make the system color blind. But have we gotten there yet? Research indicates that we've still got a long way to go. In the top 1,000 U.S. industrial companies and the 500 biggest firms of all kinds, 97% of senior managers are white. Estimates are that 95% to 97% are male, according to the Glass Ceiling Commission, a federal panel established by former President George Bush to monitor women and minorities in business and industry. Black, Latino and Asian men earn far less than white men, even when they have similar education and experience. When white males earn one dollar, black men earn 74 cents, white women make 71 cents, Latino men 65 cents and black women 64 cents. The median black household income is about 56% of whites, according to an article published in March in The Los Angeles Times.

So, says Ann M. Morrison, president of New Leaders Institute based in Del Mar, California: "If we abandon affirmative action, what do we put in its place, because prejudice is still prevalent. We aren't past that yet. The question shouldn't be, 'should affirmative action stay or go,' but rather, 'what kinds of policies or mechanisms will do a better job to combat prejudice that still exists not only in society but in most organizations?'"

Affirmative action has its purpose.
To answer the question of what mechanisms need to be in place, it's necessary to know the history behind the affirmative-action initiatives, including the pros and cons of them that have stirred recent debate. It started back in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was enacted. Title VII of the Act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The following year, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, the executive basis for affirmative action. The Order not only prohibited discrimination by companies doing work for the government, it also added that the companies should "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and treated during employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex or national origin." In other words, Johnson's Executive Order created the obligation to take affirmative action, even though the company hadn't engaged in discrimination in the past. Similar obligations were soon put on companies concerning women.

"I don't believe the playing field is level, or that we can leave diversity to voluntary efforts."-David R. Barclay, Hughes Electronics Corp.

While the language clearly states that the order is to ensure equal-em-ployment opportunity, it was opposed to making hiring and promotion decisions because of race or gender. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted, its objective was for equality of opportunity, not special consideration or compensation for slavery, according to the Equal Employment Advisory Council, the Washington D.C.-based association that monitors these types of activities. In fact, as it points out, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made the idea a central point of his speeches-that people should be judged by their character, not by the color of their skin.

At that point in our nation's history, the unemployment rate for blacks was about twice that of whites. Some advocates wanted special treatment for blacks, believing that impartial treatment wouldn't be enough. They believed that companies should recruit qualified blacks and give them preference. Other groups disagreed with rigorous mandates for hiring certain percentages of minorities or women (quotas), but urged aggressive action when it came to employing minorities.

In practice, President Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order 11246 demanded that companies doing business with the government show they have systems in place and take positive steps (or take affirmative action) to be more inclusive in their employment practices. The Order attempts to assist people in developing their skills, but doesn't require a contractor to place an unqualified person in a job. Jackson is a good example of affirmative action working at its best: The mandate was established to help identify qualified applicants who might otherwise be ignored.

The executive order began the long debate about the best way to address groups traditionally victimized by discrimination. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) began to administer contract compliance. But it wasn't until the Nixon Administration that the idea of quotas came into being and the situation became more confusing. In 1970, Richard Nixon's Department of Labor issued Order No. Four, which required companies to create goals and timetables. It stated that supervisors should be judged and appraised by the results they achieve in the area of affirmative action.

Clearly, quotas are illegal. The idea of quotas-hiring people because of ethnicity or gender regardless of qualifications-has never been sanctioned, and is only justified in rare instances when the court deems it so. Just as clear, however, is the fact that, given human nature, the idea of goals and preferences can sometimes change drastically when it comes time for individuals to implement them.

Why is there so much animosity surrounding affirmative action?
It's this idea of preferential treatment that current debate is grounded on. Back in the mid-'60s and the '70s, Americans had the attitude that there would always be enough jobs to go around. We believed that one group-African Americans-who had been excluded over our long history, could be included in the goodies of society without whites suffering any ill economic effects. That attitude has changed drastically.

Unquestionably, the demographic and political landscape has changed dramatically since President Johnson created Executive Order 11246. In addition to American blacks, several other minority groups today have become players in the political arena.

For example, during the last 30-plus years, Asian Americans have increased from 1 million to 8.5 million, and Latinos have increased from 3.5 million to 23 million. The black population that was once almost all descendants of American slaves, is now an increasingly diverse group-25% of blacks in New York City, for example, are immigrants or children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Native Americans also have increased from one-half million to 2.2 million. In fact, racial and ethnic groups accounted for only 10% of the population in 1964, and comprise approximately one-third of the population today. In addition, Baby Boomers came of age during these last 30 years, creating an explosion in the work force population.

Add the economic downturn to these trends and you have a picture of why many believe it's time to reexamine the policies. "We have such a huge group of Baby Boomers trying to squeeze up in organization pyramids, but there are less layers and less upward mobility," says Anita Rowe, partner at Gardenswartz & Rowe, a Los Angeles-based diversity consulting firm. "That means less opportunities. And when there's less opportunities and more people clamoring for them, and suddenly someone is telling people that some kind of preferential treatment will be given to somebody else, people will become angry."

Today, people ask whether affirmative action doesn't cause reverse discrimination: Opponents would say yes-advocates would say no. They're asking if it's possible to set nondiscrimination as a goal without having preferential treatment. For example, what happens when qualified people attain a place in college or a job, but an even better qualified person is passed over because he's part of the white majority? It makes people ask if it's really possible for us to have a color blind society, in which everyone is judged solely on merit.

Opponents of affirmative action such as Frederick R. Lynch, associate professor of government at Claremont Mc-Kenna College, think affirmative action makes a color blind society difficult to achieve, if not impossible. "Affirmative action, which started out as a means to attain nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, wound up trying to allocate opportunities on the basis of proportionalism, but using only two variables-race and gender. It has led to an obsession with race and gender to the exclusion of all other variables that social scientists know are important," says Lynch, who authored Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action and Diversity Crusade and the White Male Revolt.

"Affirmative action has led to an obsession with race and gender to the exclusion of all other variables that social scientists know are important."

Lynch believes that our society has moved away from trying to achieve equal opportunity and nondiscrimination toward individuals to a system of proportional representation. "We've gone from equal opportunity for individuals-you can go as high as you can go based on nondiscrimination-to group representation, which is the antithesis of equal opportunity for individuals," he says. "If you're a very talented individual, but you come into an organization when your group's quota already has been filled, then you're out of luck."

Certainly, with affirmative action, Corporate America is trying to balance two paradoxical ideas-one of creating a color blind work force, and the other of trying to achieve diversity that represents the proportions in the applicant pool (or general population).

What this struggle for balance has created in some instances is race norming, a practice in which organizations, such as police and fire departments, lower pass scores on entry exams for minorities so as to achieve the desired percentages the departments need. Although this practice is illegal, some organizations may find its consequences less harmful than discrimination cases brought against them. There's seldom any reverse-bias judgments and Lynch believes that's because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shields employers who are taking reasonable, voluntary affirmative-action steps against reverse discrimination complaints.

Says Lynch: "If you're looking at it from the boardroom on a cost-benefit basis, you're saying, 'If we had to deny some people jobs simply because it's competitive, who could we deny?' And, of course, there's no NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help a white male. In other words, all the public-interest law organizations would come in on the side of the female or minority, but not on the side of a white male. Plus, most white males just don't complain because they don't want to be called racists or whiners. And the media didn't pay much attention to this [controversy] until about last year."

Recent court rulings fuel the debate.
It's the type of perception Lynch talks about that has prompted both federal and local governments and courts to start reexamining affirmative action. Recent developments include the following:

  • In June, the Supreme Court ruled that preferential treatment based on race is almost always unconstitutional. The narrow, 5-4 ruling was based on a case in Colorado in which a white road builder lost a federal contract to a Latino businessman, even though the white businessman submitted a slightly lower bid
  • A federal court recently prohibited the University of Maryland from offering scholarships to black students solely because of their race.
  • In April, President Clinton agreed to sign a bill that would abolish special tax breaks reserved for minority-owned broadcast properties, calling into question the Federal Communications Commission's 17-year-old minority-preference program.
  • Other set-aside programs, such as those by the Small Business Administration, that allow minority and female-owned businesses special consideration in winning federal accounts, are now under attack.
  • In July, the state of California introduced the California Civil Rights Initiative, which will come before voters in 1996. It reads: "Neither the state of California nor any of its subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group, any operation of the state system or public employment, public education or public contracting."

With these events in the headlines, the debate over the fate of affirmative action is raging. The problem with the debate, Norris says, is that it's being fueled by extremists on both sides of the issue over a very small part of what's being embraced by the term affirmative action. Because of this, "If you indicate you're against preferences, one extreme will say you're a racist. If you say you do support taking race or gender into account, then you're deemed a quota king," says Norris. The inflammatory nature of the rhetoric has many-even those who feel the debate is legitimate-concerned.

"I don't think it's enough to say 'affirmative action is inequitable, so we're going to throw it out.'"-Anita Rowe, Gardenswartz & Rowe

There's even greater concern, however, about what will happen if affirmative-action initiatives are rolled back. "The current attack we see on affirmative action today is as serious as it has ever been," says David Barclay, corporate vice president of Workforce Diversity at Los Angeles-based Hughes Electronics Corp. "If all of these initiatives were passed and implemented in their purest form, it could eliminate affirmative action as we know it today. That would create greater societal problems than anyone really has addressed up to this point. I'm one who doesn't believe we have overcome our race and gender problems. I don't believe the playing field is level, nor do I believe we're at a point in history in which we can leave this to voluntary efforts."

Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity (AIMD) at Atlanta's Morehouse College, agrees. "People say we now have equal opportunity, and we no longer need to have affirmative action," he says. "I'm not clear that affirmative action has given us equal opportunity. I think it has resulted in some people having opportunity that wouldn't have had the opportunity. We've worked on inclusion, but not utilization. Inclusion relates to affirmative action. Utilization relates to managing diversity."

Indeed, there's a distinction that has to be made between affirmative action and diversity. Affirmative action is legally driven and is about trying to achieve equality of opportunity by focusing on specific groups. Diversity efforts focus on managing and handling the work force you already have, explains Rowe. "Diversity is a pragmatic approach," she says. Its business orientation is fundamentally different from affirmative action's legal orientation. In other words, affirmative action is a tool or mechanism to help create a diverse work force. One exists to right wrongs; the other is a strategic advantage and a business imperative.

"The question we often get is 'what will be the impact [of the affirmative-action debate] on managing diversity?'" says Thomas. "And the really frightening thing is that the debate shows just how far we have to go in fostering an understanding of what managing diversity is. Most commentaries tend to dismiss managing diversity as some watered-down version of affirmative action. It points out that we haven't even put it on the table."

Make diversity the goal.
Can diversity be maintained and managed without affirmative-action mandates? That's a question you'll need to address as the debate over affirmative action unfolds.

According to a May 15 article in USA Today, the Fortune 500 have all expressed a commitment to diversity, with or without affirmative-action mandates, "not just because they believe it's fair, but because people from different backgrounds bring with them a range of experience and ideas." However, the same article states that, when pressed, corporate leaders in these firms admit there may be cracks in their commitment when the search for qualified minorities becomes "tireless." The article quotes author Lynch as saying, "Behind the scenes, employers are quietly saying, 'We're going to hire the best people we can find. If some happen to be minorities and women, fine. But [competition for qualified minorities has] gotten too cutthroat.'"

For these reasons, Thomas believes Corporate America still needs affirmative action's legal mandates. "Affirmative action at the present time is still necessary because we haven't made progress with managing diversity," he says. "You still need it to be inclusive, because without managing diversity, what you tend to do is bring people in who bump against the glass ceiling, stagnate and leave."

Rowe agrees. "I don't think it's enough to say 'affirmative action is inequitable, so we're going to throw it out and go back to a meritocracy.' That's totally fallacious because what we're going to do is throw away one system that may have some inequities for another that may be just as flawed."

Certainly, if affirmative action is dismantled, and there's no longer a legal mandate to strive for diversity, there could be a deterioration in hiring people of color and women if companies don't keep the goal of diversity forefront when hiring and promoting.

But with diversity a very real business goal-even a necessity-these days, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't continue to be an HR concern. And not just in hiring, but in nurturing and promoting as well. "For us to be competitive domestically and internationally, and for us to be deemed an employer of choice by a diverse work force, we need to do more than simply see if there's a level playing field," says Norris. "We need to do more than minimal compliance. Many companies already have left the contract compliance program in the dust and are doing more than is required by law."

Simply look at Stamford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp., which was cited by the Glass Ceiling Commission for its success in hiring and promoting women and minorities. The company had more than 47,000 domestic employees in 1994, of which 32% were women and 26% were minorities. Of its domestic vice presidents and directors, 18% were minorities and 15% were women. "If you really understand Workforce 2000 and this global economy, companies and organizations that don't embrace diversity are going to have a difficult time being leading-edge players," says Marcia Knowles Matthews, manager of Corporate Workforce Diversity at Xerox. Matthews talks about the company's initiative-the Balanced Workforce Process-which started in 1985. The idea is based on affirmative action's original principles-that any work force should mirror the community in which it resides and the market that it serves.

Clearly, it's driven by senior management, says Theodore E. Payne, previously with Xerox for 20 years in affirmative action and diversity, as well as general human resources. Payne, who's now vice president of the Human Resource Partnership in Stamford, says that during earlier attacks on affirmative action and equal opportunity, the Xerox CEO (at the time) sent letters to all employees reaffirming the company's commitment to affirmative action as a business priority.

Xerox uses U.S. Bureau of the Census data and looks at the people in its communities who have skills for the jobs. "The beauty of the Balanced Workforce idea is that it isn't only focused on minorities and women," says Matthews. "It says to a manager that if you happen to have a lot of entry level kinds of people, and they're predominantly women, then the Balanced Workforce objectives would be to get more men. Conversely, if you're running an organization that's more technically oriented, or you're top-heavy with men, the goal would be to balance it more by focusing on women."

The company's goal is to eventually reach approximately 30% minorities in senior management. Therefore, the company not only looks at its hiring practices, but at its promotion decisions as well. "The principles are founded on self-help, high levels of performance and wanting Xerox to be successful," Matthews says.

"Most commentaries tend to dismiss managing diversity as watered-down affirmative action."-Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., AIMD

Would Xerox continue on this track if affirmative action as a mandate were abolished? You bet. They're doing it now not just because it's a legal requirement, but because it's a value and a business necessity.

Hughes Electronics is another company that feels this way. As a U.S. contractor, Hughes would be directly affected by any affirmative-action legislation. But, the company wouldn't change course. "A lot of people say [affirmative action] is a remedy for past discrimination," says Barclay. "Yes, it is that and has been used in that manner. But it's also a management tool, a process by which we analyze our work force and make decisions about where we need to take action. It's an extension of our business plan."

Barclay says that there are a lot of qualified minorities and women in the Hughes pipeline, and believes that job opportunities only happen in companies such as Hughes in which there's strong leadership from the top-and in which there's accountability. "Corporate America measures that which it values as important," says Jackson. "We measure how we perform in terms of our profit-and-loss statements; we measure performance. In my opinion, if you don't value it, you won't measure it. Conversely, if you do measure it, it's because you value it."

What you need to do.
Because people tend to agree that diversity is tied to bottom-line results, moving toward diversity is important for human resources people to consider. Here are some ideas about what you can do. First, you need to be careful that you don't fall in the either-or trap of defending or attacking any of the extreme positions. Your role needs to be one of continuing to focus people on common ground, on common objectives and on finding a creative and mutually satisfying solution to these dilemmas. And you can't do that if you fall into a polarizing trap. You'll need to facilitate the dialogue at every single meeting by continuing to refocus people on solutions, not blame, and by dispelling the myths.

The key challenge is to get the issue out of human resources and have it treated as a business issue. Affirmative action has to be related to strategy, to business goals and to productivity. People daily become more convinced that amends have already been made for the way some people have been treated in the past. Diversity efforts must be tied to the business for people to see that everyone benefits.

As HR managers, you need to go back and look at your own company's history and see what kind of progress has been made since affirmative action. You can give examples of minorities and women who've succeeded at the workplace. In that way, you can measure the extent of diversity in the workplace. You can provide background reading and other materials on the topic, and conduct workshops so employees will be knowledgeable. This will enable managers to make the right business decisions and engage in dialogue as opposed to fueling unproductive controversy. Collect information that will illuminate the pros and cons of the debate. In company newsletters, provide updates on the status of national, regional and statewide initiatives that will affect the workplace, educational institutions and government.

Clearly, the debate regarding affirmative action will continue. More investigations of preferential programs are a sure bet. In fact, President Clinton has vowed to examine the 160 affirmative-action programs in existence today. Some of them will be dismantled and eliminated. Then, there's the 1996 California ballot initiative that will continue to keep attention focused on the issue. Even though these activities may be political, as human resources pros, you can't dismiss them because many of the issues they pose are valid. You'll have to reconcile discrimination and individual standards of quality. You'll also have to identify where barriers still exist, and how they can be overcome without sacrificing white males in the process. Is there favoritism-or fear-in your corporation?

If, as many human resources people believe, affirmative action is just the first step in creating a diverse work force that promotes competitive business practices, supporting the process becomes important in whatever way seems appropriate.

"What all that translates into is that Corporate America [the Fortune 500] will continue to develop plans that bring in minorities and women," says Jackson. "They will continue to put plans in place to properly orient, develop, train and educate so these people can be successful contributors to Corporate America. The reason they'll continue to do it, even if there's no legal mandate, is because it just makes good business sense."

"If changes in the system will affect your bottom line, now's the time to start debating the issues internally, taking political action and preparing for the future."

HR has been on the front lines working with these issues for the last 25 to 30 years. It isn't the time to back off. As Walter Vertreace, president of the New York State Advisory Counsel on Employment Law, puts it: "Human resources people are the ones who know the truth; they're the ones who know what really exists in the workplace. When people really understand affirmative action, they realize that it helps everyone. Even if the federal mandate for affirmative action was demolished tomorrow, I don't believe Corporate America would get rid of their affirmative-action programs. Companies that are effective in affirmative action, and that are effective in diversity, understand that these are business objectives. Without diversity, you won't be competitive now, and you're certainly not going to be competitive in the year 2000."

So, think about the issues and how any changes in the affirmative-action laws will affect your company. Maybe they won't, because your company already has developed an equal playing field and is advanced in its diversity measures. But, if changes in the system will impact your company's bottom line, now's the time to start debating the issues internally, taking political action and setting up measures to prepare for the future. That's what President Johnson did 30 years ago. That's what you must do today.

Personnel Journal, August 1995, Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 56-67.

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