The term “affirmative action” has been around for more than 60 years. Nevertheless, employees and business leaders alike continue to misunderstand the importance of affirmative action initiatives. Some people associate affirmative action with controversial and divisive topics like point systems, hiring quotas, and exclusionary hiring protocols. Yet when affirmative action works — that is, when it’s applied proactively and correctly — none of those measures are necessary.
Preventative affirmative action compliance does not come at employment from a combative or opposing perspective. After all, the very basis of compliance practices is that they are for everyone. With proper prevention processes and procedures in place, companies never have to undergo corrective actions because those organizations value diversity and are checking themselves frequently for purposeful or uninformed discrimination. In other words, affirmative action helps federal contractors and larger businesses avoid the need to correct harmful decisions or illegal hiring practices.
So how did affirmative action get so confusing? What caused so many people to refuse the beneficial aspects of affirmative action? What people don’t know is that the history of affirmative action is long and winding. But like all things, it had to start somewhere.
Affirmative Action: Original Intent, Business Response
Although most people associate affirmative action in the workplace with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the term was first used three years prior in response to job-related discrimination. Affirmative action became attached to the Civil Rights Act when courts started enforcing the act to put a stop to discrimination as a whole. As part of their enforcement, they crafted remedies — like quotas — to rectify violations of the act. They named those corrective measures “affirmative action,” which caused and continues to cause consternation and controversy.
Today, businesses and employees have mixed feelings about affirmative action due to their misunderstanding of the terminology. Although fewer organizations resist affirmative action today, workers still frequently view it with varying degrees of suspicion and aversion. It doesn’t help that some companies merely treat it as something to keep the Department of Labor “out of their hair.” The lack of proper documentation and communication sets a bad precedent and only serves to turn affirmative action programs into paperwork exercises rather than ensuring everyone has the opportunities they deserve.
Without fundamental changes from the bottom up, confusion and reluctance around affirmative action compliance terminology will continue. Those positive shifts can start with organizational leaders switching up the affirmative action conversation in three key ways:
1. Establish that corrective affirmative action in the workplace is inherently wrong.
If your organization has a hiring quota, that’s not affirmative action in the workplace. It’s a sign of one of two things, and neither is good: Either you’re doing affirmative action wrong or you’ve been illegally discriminating for so long that now you have to remedy the problem as a whole. People are right to be upset if they see quotas. However, they shouldn’t be upset at affirmative action. They should be upset that their employer hasn’t taken affirmative action seriously. Ensure your organization is in a place where every employee and executive knows how detrimental corrective affirmative action is and that everyone should strive for preventative affirmative action instead.
2. Ensure employees understand that affirmative action is a priority.
No one will take affirmative action seriously at your company until you and other leaders make it a priority. The best and easiest way to drive home the seriousness of affirmative action is to talk more about it. Have those hard discussions. Set up training to explain the distinction between corrective and preventative affirmative action. Otherwise, your team members might assume your affirmative action plan is just there to ensure you hire more women and people of color. (That’s generally illegal, by the way.) You’ll get more buy-in if you help employees see affirmative action planning as a tool for diversity and retaining top talent, not a punishment.
3. Stop referring to Executive Order 11246 incorrectly.
Too many professionals refer to Executive Order 11246 as “the affirmative action plan for women and minorities.” It’s not. The order protects against discrimination in a much broader context that’s not limited to gender or ethnic background. Trying to pigeonhole the order casts an unnecessary negative shadow over something positive and progressive.
Of course, we at Biddle know it can be tough to make changes surrounding affirmative action plans, policies, and views without assistance. We’re passionate about affecting the changing culture of affirmative action. That’s why our consultants are ready to make sure your affirmative action plans are both compliant and meaningful.
Contact our team online and get a healthier conversation around compliance terminology started at your company today.