What is affirmative action in the workplace?
Affirmative Action is a controversial issue, "...which invariably conveys different connotations to different people" (Robinson& Seydel& Douglas, 1998). It is an effort to promote equal opportunity in the workplace or education. The rules advocate for equality of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors of groups that have been historically discriminated against or overlooked. Affirmative action is a global concept. Regardless of the country, the basic tenants of affirmative action are the same. Each country’s affirmative action posture includes targeted groups, set goals of “fairness” and “economic parity,” and some form of legal provisions for equity and inclusionary practices. It is often considered a means of countering historical discrimination against particular groups. Although it seems like a good way of promoting equality, it is in itself a form of discrimination. Affirmative Action is sometimes referred to as “positive discrimination” or “reverse discrimination”.
Section 56 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe (Amendment) Act, 2013 and Section 5(2)(a) of the Labour Act 1985 prohibit discrimination against a current or prospective employee on grounds of race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, color, creed, gender, age, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS status, and any disability concerning the determination or allocation of wages and salaries. This puts into question whether these policies are constitutional.
The advantages and disadvantages of affirmative action
In every workplace, affirmative action has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, affirmative action can open the door to having a diverse, balanced workplace. On the other hand, affirmative action can create an atmosphere of resentment and suspicion. Although the Affirmative action policy seeks to promote equality, it is a method of hiring and promoting solely based on one discriminatory ground or another. This may result in companies hiring and promoting to appease the government and not based on merit. As a result, this can affect the performance of the individuals as in some cases the incumbent may not be fully qualified for the role. Others who may be more suited for the role or promotion are then overlooked because of the company’s need to fulfill ethnic, gender, and racial quotas.
Supporters of Affirmative Action tend to argue that these policies are necessary to offset the systematic barriers that minorities and women continue to face in pursuing education and employment opportunities. In this view, discrimination and pernicious stereotypes have persisted into the present, while the cumulative effects of past discrimination also continue to hobble underrepresented groups in a variety of ways. Thus, Affirmative Action is needed to counter these barriers and to equalize opportunities.
This may also cause some discomfort to new minority employees who may be unsure of whether they were hired based on merit or to fulfill some mandate. A disadvantage of affirmative action is that the program often compels employers to potentially overlook highly qualified applicants in favor of only marginally qualified applicants who meet affirmative action standards, this affects meritocracy. Although affirmative action hires are qualified for the position, in some cases they are not the most qualified of all applicants. This could lead to high turnover if the position turns out to be a poor fit or the applicant fails to perform job duties optimally.
Although affirmative action efforts are in place to prevent racism, gender bias, and unfair discrimination, it creates these situations for the historical majority. Some may refer to affirmative action as a reverse form of racism or discrimination because the system now places the historic majority in a separate class because of race and gender.
Affirmative action guidelines require covered employers to meet certain goals and timetables for hiring and/or promoting women and minorities. It creates an increase in competition for well-qualified applicants because employers direct job postings towards minorities and women to increase applications for those groups.
Another disadvantage of affirmative action is that it places the focus on racial and gender-related issues when employers should primarily focus on how well a potential employee will perform in a particular position. Affirmative action also draws attention to past issues of racism and discrimination.
Other employees may also be skeptical about the new minority employee. Affirmative action places the focus on racial and gender-related issues when employers should primarily focus on how well a potential employee will perform in a particular position, but at the same
time, it creates a fairer playing field for minorities even though sometimes it is at the expense of meritocracy.
Case studies to note on affirmative action in the workplace
Several leading multinationals, such as Microsoft Corp., Kellogg, 3M Company, Dow Chemical Co., Eastman Kodak Co., Lucent Technologies Inc., Texaco Corp., and Boeing Co., continually express their strong support for affirmative action policies. Boeing demonstrates its support through communications that stress its commitment to affirmative action as a means of creating a diverse environment consistent with business goals and market demands.
A survey of leading U.S. multinationals among Fortune 500 companies reported that affirmative action has improved and strengthened recruitment procedures and enhanced their success in the global marketplace. The chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G), John E. Pepper, states “Our success as a global company is a direct result of our diverse and talented workforce. Our ability to develop new consumer insights and ideas and to execute in a superior way across the world is the best possible testimony to the power of diversity any organization could ever have.” Companies such as P&G invest enormous amounts of time, talent, and resources to develop and implement highly structured affirmative action plans to foster global success. Alicia Whitaker, managing director of global human resource programs at Credit Suisse First Boston, underscores that increasingly global forces “require any organization that wants to compete effectively to be quick, sensitive, flexible, adaptable—and genuinely diverse— in how it serves the marketplace.
According to David Matthews, director of affirmative action at KPMG Peat Marwick, the keys to global success are selecting and developing people who are not only technically competent but are also open to various creative resources and have diverse perspectives. Leading multinational companies such as CocaCola Co. and Denny’s Corp. have spent millions of dollars settling lawsuits alleging discrimination in their corporate structures or their behavior with customers. Moreover, such lawsuits have harmed their image worldwide. Stung by the $192.5 million class-action settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit, Coca-Cola Co. reformulated its diversity programs to regain its image as a global citizen.
IBM Corp. uses affirmative action plans to monitor representation against job market availability; it uses goals and timetables to accomplish AAP objectives. Affirmative action is an important part of life at IBM and is integrated into the overall way the company conducts business. IBM’s reputation around the world is evidence of its determination and proactive stance on inclusion.
As of August, 24% of Intel's employees were women and 12% were underrepresented minorities. But it's pledged to ramp up those numbers so that its staff looks more like the U.S. workforce. Other tech giants from Apple to Twitter have also begun disclosing their diversity reports. They have shown that Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly white and male and companies are committing to change this.
It is a flawed system and is discriminatory in itself. However, measures that give an edge to particular applicants based on race, gender, or another protected characteristic have historically been more controversial. These measures might include:
- using race as a “plus” factor in hiring (so that an African American applicant would be preferred over a white applicant with the same qualifications)
- using lower cutoffs for test scores for minority or female candidates, or
- setting hiring goals or quotas (e.g. that 30% of the workforce in a traditionally male profession be female by 2020).
Measures like these provide a benefit to members of one group that comes at the expense of members of another.
Fadzai Danha is a consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm.
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