Affirmative Action: Separating Myth From Reality

Affirmative action plans often get bad reputations. Certain affirmative action myths cloud people’s perceptions, and poor communication about the intentions of such programs only perpetuates misunderstanding.

Too often, people believe these programs are corrective, focused on quotas and taking from one group to give to another. But this is untrue. Affirmative action does not guide organizations to make decisions that disadvantage one group in favor of another (which would violate the law). In reality, it prevents the need for quotas or other reactive, corrective actions by holding back discrimination in the first place.

Affirmative action plans guide organizations’ hiring practices to ensure that the playing field is level for everyone. They help companies determine whether and where there could be discrimination, acting like “heat maps” that indicate potential problem areas. 

Nothing highlights the effects of poor affirmative action communication more than the reaction to companies committing to hire more people of color over the past year. It encapsulates a core problem in the way we think — the idea that everything is a zero-sum game, which impedes the goals and general understanding of affirmative action.

Common Myths About Affirmative Action 

The following are a few key misconceptions to be aware of — and how to combat them through effective communication.

1. Affirmative action focuses only on numbers.

Many reports featuring demographics and headcounts give the impression that an organization should have X number of people from a specific group, but these numbers only identify areas of apparent imbalances. The main reason you investigate these numbers is to ensure the proper application of anti-discrimination laws.

2. Affirmative action applies only to women and people of color.

Regulations require federal contractor employees to look for potential discrimination against these groups, but that is because they were most impacted by discrimination when the laws were enacted. In actuality, these laws protect everyone from discrimination.

3. There is “magical” regulatory language.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ regulations contain no specific “goals” with regard to affirmative action programs, and they are not meant “for” certain groups. If the language hinders the message, use different words. We need to better distinguish between corrective and preventative affirmative action and emphasize at every turn that an organization’s affirmative action program is preventative.

Article Continues Below

As an example, regulations might require a contractor to set “placement goals,” which certain audiences might perceive as “quotas.” These goals, as intended by the law, are really the development of an “action plan” to address problems before they arise. 

That said, referring to them as “action plans” instead of “goals” can change the way people perceive affirmative action and hopefully help eliminate any unnecessary negative connotations. Your messages should inspire people — not alienate them.

4. Affirmative action is the same thing as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Affirmative action is an important part of DEI work, but DEI work is a much broader, more comprehensive effort to increase a company’s culture and practices to be more inclusive and diverse. Affirmative action exists to ensure fair and inclusive hiring practices, but it only pertains to that element of operations. When hiring is made more equitable and inclusive, however, companies are also more equitable and inclusive — and DEI work is made stronger.

In short, affirmative action should be every company’s best friend — not its enemy. Although today’s affirmative action messaging often falls short, affirmative action itself is critical to ensuring equality in your company. Still by understanding the underlying goals of affirmative action, you can better position your employees and your company for the future.

Matt Nusbaum is the director of the BCG Institute for Workforce Development (BCGi). Matt has more than nine years of experience as a practicing attorney and is one of the nation’s leading authorities on affirmative action. He consults federal contractor employers on affirmative action and nondiscrimination requirements enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor, and also those required by federal, state, and local enforcement agencies.

Topics