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When it Comes to Hiring, Choose Affirmative Action

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

I am a white person.

So white that people used to tell me I looked like Laura Ingalls as a kid.

So white that you can see my veins through my skin.

So white that my small children need to help me with the pronunciation of their friends’ names that just come rolling off their tongues: Licketh, Tati, Ojas.

I acknowledge my own white privilege, that my business community is dominated by white people, and that there are plenty of people out there with direct experience with racism in ways that I never will.

These people need to be heard, and their positions elevated, in the interest of fighting racism, and in a way that empowers them.

We need to create more space for people of color to flourish and be equal.

As an HR Pro, I've been partnering with organizations for over 15+ years to help diversify their workforce. And with the horrific events that have led to a new interest in this topic, maybe my experience could help a person or two -- knowing full well that my experience is laced in privilege that led me to boardrooms at a young age.

Not having lived the experience, I would never claim to understand racism fully.

But what I do know is:

When it comes to hiring, we should practice affirmative action -- even when it isn't legally required.

Affirmative Action often comes with negative connotations, quotas, and flashbacks to the Bill Clinton era -- and this was, coincidentally, about the time I started studying HR in college.

I wrote my senior thesis on the business case for Affirmative Action when the law was young and controversial. And landed a few jobs with government contractors who were required to comply with requirements by writing an Affirmative Action Plans (AAP). This forced us to perform an audit of our workforce every year and compare our internal workforce demographics to the local US Census data of those in similar jobs.

We needed a plan to show how we were going to take action (affirmative action, if you will) on closing those gaps between the percentage of females and minorities in our organization vs. the percentage of females and minorities that had similar jobs in our recruiting area. (Hint: There were always gaps.).

That led to some of the best discussions in my career. Since I was the one who put together the plans and stats -- I would often present to the board (in my industry, that was almost all male, white, over 50, Christian). And you could see their competitive heads spinning when they got a score of 77% or 50% -- these guys considered themselves "winners."

They wanted to "win" at diversity, too, and so they were eager to put together a plan.

We did. And then the next year, we would review those the numbers again. And you could see the needle slowly move forward. And managers within the organization were held accountable for those initiatives as well.

Here's the thing: no one (almost no one) believes that they are racist.

But when you show statistics, that yeah -- actually, your workforce isn't reflecting that of your community -- it can tell a different story.

My plans never got audited by the OFCCP. But I can tell you the plans don't require quotas, just goals. You just need to show that you have identified the areas that you are behind in, and show that you have a plan to fix it.

Are you attempting to hire and promote women and minorities in areas where you historically haven't?

One of my favorite examples of this was at an airline. This was pretty confidential at the time but they are out of business now so I think I can share.

They did a lot for "diversity," mainly in recruiting women pilots. They went to conferences. They had a team of pilots and HR members who would scout out women coming out of pilot programs across the country and try and get first dibs. And that was great -- there's no one more pro-"girl power" than me.

But I did the AAP analysis of the entire 6,500 person organization, and the census data showed that there really weren't many women (or minority) pilots in the US. So, we didn't have an obligation under the law to take affirmative action to hire them.

However, when it came to customer service agents (the people who check you in and take your bags to the plane), we were way behind the curve when it came to hiring minorities. The surrounding areas had a lot of qualified Black and other minority candidates but we weren't hiring them...which meant we also weren't promoting them.

When 25-year-old me made some recommendations based on the data I had pulled together, it ruffled some feathers.

My suggestion was to reduce our focus on hiring women pilots and start putting together a plan to attract and hire minority customer service agents.

But the numbers don't lie and my numbers were right -- it's just that no one had ever looked at them before in the 75 years that the company had been in business.

Affirmative Action often gets an eye roll or two. It's been widely criticized for being ineffective and causing more division.

But if you read the law, it's never been about hiring someone unqualified. It is about doing more outreach (and less buddy referring) to ensure that everyone feels welcome at the (hiring) table.

And if there are two qualified candidates, the minority should be selected.

Most HR leaders would agree with this, but we don't always have the power to enact it. We are at the mercy of our hiring managers. Having an AAP Plan written made everyone accountable.

I’ve luckily never met someone who has admitted to being openly racist, but we need to recognize our implicit bias. And in HR, it's our job as HR leaders to point those out.

This can be uncomfortable, but good leaders will welcome the feedback.

It's a dark time for racial relations in our country. Heck, it's never been good. But here's some hope: most of my current clients have told me in their own way (some boldly claiming it, others shyly asking about it) that they value diversity and want more of it in their organizations.

Representation is how we will change our archaic systemic practices.

This means recognizing our biases, listening to other people's stories, tackling systemic racism, enforcing equality on all levels, fighting inequality in the workplace, and beyond.

If you want diverse ideas, hire differently.

Put together a plan to first examine your current organizational make-up. The analysis doesn't need to be as long as an APP but an attempt to understand the demographics of the workers in your community. Then make a plan to fix it if it needs to be fixed. (Hint: It needs to be fixed.)

Numbers are the language of business. We are ruled by balance sheets, annual reports, scorecards, and audits. If we want leaders to take action, first we need to show them that there is a diversity problem-- not only in the world -- but living within their organizations. AAP provides a platform for that.

At this moment, leadership all across the country is ripe for change. Let's show them how.

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