Affirmative Action: New Interpretations and Realities

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Affirmative action emerged during the 1960s as a government-mandated strategy for rectifying the effects of past discrimination. Although the goal of providing equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of race or gender has never been questioned seriously, controversy has swirled around affirmative action with claims by non-minorities of "reverse discrimination" and complaints by employers of coercion to hire unqualified job applicants. This paper examines the relevance of affirmative action for the 1990s in light of changes in public policy and changes in society. It suggests that the judicious use of affirmative action can increase a company's competitiveness in increasingly diverse product and labor markets.

Two trends emerged in the 1980s that reshaped some of the basic tenets of corporate human resource (HR) planning. On the one hand, several 1989 Supreme Court decisions that addressed discrimination and affirmative action in the workplace sparked much discussion and controversy. It was argued that minority rights in the workplace (1) were gutted; others maintained that Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) defenses were relying on the same standard as other civil cases. The Bush administration and Congress have responded to the shift in the courts by attempting to articulate the country's stance toward equal opportunity and affirmative action through new civil rights legislation.

On the other hand, reports such as "Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century" (1987) apprised corporate America of ensuing changes in the work force and labor markets. The bulk of new entrants into the labor force during the 1990s are going to be older persons, or persons from a minority background, or immigrants, or females. Furthermore, there will be fewer qualified applicants from which to choose because far fewer people will be entering the labor force and those who do will be less skilled than the workers of the 1980s.

On the surface, these two trends appear to be contradictory. Simultaneous predictions of the death of affirmative action programs and projections of a work force composed primarily of women and minorities must have HR planners wondering which future scenario to address-one with less concern for women and minorities or one with more. Rather than ignoring one or both of these conflicting trends, HR planners should consider affirmative action as creative solution to these dual problems. Affirmative action need not be viewed only as a response to judicial and legislative intrusions, but as a proactive tool for increasing a company's competitive posture in changing labor and consumer markets.

This article examines the legal imperatives and the business realities that imply that affirmative action is far from an obsolete concept. Suggestions are made as to how affirmative action can be incorporated into HR plans for the 1990s.

Inception of Affirmative Action

Laws concerning equal employment opportunity emerged in the 1960s as a way to address discriminatory employment practices that were widespread in the United States. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for employers covered by the Act to discriminate in the hiring, discharging, or treatment of an employee with respect to that person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The term "affirmative action" was coined by the Johnson administration in 1965 as part of Executive Order 11246, which stated that U.S. policy was to provide equal employment and to rectify the effects of past discrimination. This concept was based on the idea that merely ceasing to do harm does not undo the wrongs of the past; hence, affirmative action programs have as their goal the equalization of opportunities in employment and government programs for historically disadvantaged groups. This can be done by taking into consideration the characteristics (race, gender, etc. …