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Q & A About Affirmative Action

August 1, 1995
How did affirmative action begin?
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 that requires "employers doing business with the federal government to develop affirmative-action plans to assure equal employment opportunity in their employment practices."

In a typical large corporation, affirmative action begins with adopting a strong policy of equal employment opportunity, followed by monitoring to identify possible discrimination.

Affirmative action was simply a commitment by a company that it would take positive steps to ensure it wouldn't discriminate. It has evolved from posting notices that declare a company won't discriminate to monitoring applicant pools to see that they're rich with women and minorities. This monitoring also helps the company see if its efforts are sufficient to attract all kinds of qualified people.

When problems are identified, companies establish employment goals that are targets designed to ensure that women and minorities are represented in all segments of the work force. Many companies develop and implement programs that enable individuals to compete with others on as equal a footing as possible. These programs tend to center around recruitment, training, development, mentoring, family assistance—all designed to expand opportunities for qualified people.

Three main rationales for existing affirmative-action programs: Compensation for past discrimination, correction of current discrimination and diversification as an end worth pursuing in and of itself.

What is the difference between affirmative action and diversity?
Affirmative action is quite different from 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. One key difference is that managing and valuing diversity gives your organization a competitive advantage. "One is to right wrongs, the other is a strategic advantage and a business imperative," says Anita Rowe, partner at Gardenswartz & Rowe, a Los Angeles-based diversity consultant firm. Rowe sees diversity as much more inclusive than affirmative action.

You can view affirmative action and diversity management as a continuum. Nondiscrimination means the company will not discriminate. Affirmative action means the company will take positive steps to ensure that it doesn't discriminate. Then, you move into the next stage—proactively promoting a diverse and inclusive work force. "This isn't necessarily because it's the legal thing to do or even the morally right thing to do, but because there's a legitimate business reason," says Rowe.

Managing and valuing diversity are the next steps. Managing diversity focuses on managing your work force, which just happens to be diverse. The motivation, says Elmer Jackson, general director of employment relations for General Motors North American Operation in Detroit, is that maintaining a more diverse work force gives your organization a competitive advantage. It's a business orientation, rather than a legal or moral one. "We define it as the process of creating and maintaining an environment that naturally enables all of our employees, our suppliers and our communities to fully contribute," Jackson says. The more diverse your work force, the better your decision-making. Seen as a benchmark, especially for the manufacturing community, GM's total minority representation is about 22%; total representation of women in the company is 20%.

Does affirmative action mean you must have quotas?
No, quotas are illegal. The only exception to this is in specific legal cases where courts mandate them based on past active discrimination; quotas may be imposed only by judges. All guidelines and mandates regarding affirmative action state clearly that candidates must be qualified. Affirmative action simply encourages the development of ways to seek out and promote well-qualified candidates.

How do goals and quotas differ?
Goals are guidelines; quotas are imposed by the courts and must be achieved.

Isn't preferential treatment unfair?
Individuals are rarely evaluated on merit alone. Athletes, children of alumni and people who endow universities often receive special treatment. In business, who you know, the contacts you have, the strings you can pull all influence the positions you might be hired for, and certainly affect your rise in the organization. Preferential treatment may not be fair, but it's not new and didn't begin with affirmative action.

What are set-aside programs?
These programs (like the SBA's 8[a]) set aside some government contracts in a pool for minority and female-owned businesses. They allow those organizations to win contracts even if they don't come in with the lowest bids. Other programs (such as those in most workplaces) don't require special preferences to specific groups, but direct companies to count employees by race and sex, and be prepared to justify why numbers differ markedly from percentages in the labor force as a whole.

Isn't there a lot of reverse discrimination in the workplace today?
The number of cases is small. In a report by the Labor Department and Rutgers University that reviewed discrimination cases between 1990 and 1994, less than 3% of the federal discrimination cases were filed because of reverse discrimination.

What is the California Civil Rights Initiative, and how did it start?
This initiative, which will be on the 1996 California State ballot says, "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 of public employment, public education or public contracting."

Personnel Journal, August 1995, Vol. 74, No. 8, p. 61.