Affirmative Action Versus Diversity - What's The Real Difference?


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Providing all individuals with the opportunity to reach their full potential is about more than just compliance. It is about developing cultures that are conducive to meeting the needs of organizational members at all levels. An organization dedicated to diversity must go beyond placement of individuals, toward the long-term task of facilitating their upward movement in that organization. Though often used interchangeably, affirmative action and diversity are two separate concepts that have the ability to function together to improve representation of under represented groups in organizations.

Affirmative action is based on legal directives requiring federal contractors to measure employment practices and to develop a workforce that is reflective of the community in which they work. Resulting from historic discriminatory employment practices, affirmative action policy was designed to ensure that federal contractors made good faith efforts toward recruiting, hiring, training and promoting qualified minorities and women. The matter of affirmative action necessitates more than simply working to avoid discriminatory behavior, but also actively seeking to undo the damage of past discrimination.

While affirmative action focuses on taking positive steps to get individuals into the organization, diversity works to change the culture of that organization. Instead of just changing the representation of their workforce, organizations dedicated to a diverse workforce realize the value in a mixture of varying cultures, backgrounds and experiences.

Sybil Randolph and Dawn Hyde in Cultivating Your Affirmative Action Program on Infertile Ground explain affirmative action as being present when organizations:

  • Have and abide by an equal opportunity policy

  • Analyze their workforce to assess possible areas of goals for under represented minorities and women

  • Develop a plan of action to eliminate under representation and make a good faith effort to execute the plan

    The goal of implementing affirmative action is to create a workforce that is reflective of the area in which a contractor operates. However, Randolph and Hyde clarify the differing functions of these two concepts by defining diversity as being present “when organizations value individuals for the knowledge, skills, talents and abilities that they bring to the organization for the benefit of business. "

    A diversity orientation demonstrates for employees that diversity is a key element in organizational functioning because it:

  • Represents an integration of HR policies and practices into a “bundle", directing the organization toward diversity and diversity management

  • Includes promoting diversity through training and development, work design, staffing and compensation programs (including internal and external equity)

  • Incorporates other policy-related decisions considering diversity implications in the decision making process

    Employees who believe their organization internalizes this philosophy are more likely to recognize value in their differences, paving the way for effectiveness through creativity and innovation. Affirmative action programs and diversity initiatives are similar in that, for either to be truly effective, employees must be confident that management is dedicated to implementation.

    Unfortunately, organizational behavior and organizational policy is not always consistent. For instance, qualified minorities and women might be gaining entrance to company doors, but those same individuals can become unmotivated and stagnant when career development is not used in combination with a diversity orientation. Accordingly, the need to work toward enabling minorities and women to perform to their potential through career development is imperative.

    As demographics change, organizations will have to change to retain commitment and mobilize the workforce for productivity. This shift will call for training and promoting qualified individuals even when they do not look like or think like what has traditionally been viewed as a “fit" for the organization.

    Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, in Managing Diversity, acknowledge this stance on the differing responsibilities of affirmative action and diversity in building an inclusive environment. Affirmative action is considered the catalyst that channels a diverse set of employees into the organization.

    However, only after a diverse workforce is developed can the organization focus on creating an environment in which all needs and values are considered, individuals are not penalized for being “different" and organizational and management practices benefit the whole.

    About Kathi Traylor

    As an HR Analyst at Berkshire Associates, Inc. , Kathi conducts data analysis, develops affirmative action plans and provides general consulting services on AA/EEO implementation. Prior to working with Berkshire, Kathi worked as a Human Resources professional for a health care organization.

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