Attitudes Towards Affirmative Action

The term “affirmative action” elicits highly polarized reactions. Some see the practice of attracting, selecting and hiring minorities and women as righting past wrongs. Others view it as reverse discrimination, a kind of prejudicial selection and hiring practice.

Affirmative action programs are designed to reduce or redress past discrimination based on race or gender, stop discrimination, address under-representation or increase diversity. They are controversial because they generate arguments about hot-button issues of racial and gender inequality.

Psychologists and management researchers have studied people’s psychological reactions to affirmative action. David Harrison at Pennsylvania State University, David Kravitz and Dalit Lev-Arey of George Mason University, and David Mayer and Lisa Leslie of the University of Maryland, summarized 35 years of research on attitudes towards affirmative action. In their recently published study in The Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers discovered that the type of program and people’s personal characteristics governed their attitudes towards affirmative action.

They outline four general types of affirmative action programs ranging from least restrictive to very restrictive:

1. Opportunity Enhancement

The least restrictive type of affirmative-action program is opportunity enhancement. It strives to assist members of a racial-ethnic group or women prior to selection by the employer. These programs are focused on recruiting applicants of a target group for consideration for employment. They are designed to add more target group members to the pool of qualified applicants. Opportunity enhancement programs do not give weight to gender or racial-ethnic traits in hiring decisions. The idea is to simply increase the number of qualified applicants from a particular group.

2. Equal Opportunity

This program forbids employers from discriminating against women or a racial-ethnic group. It disallows employment decisions where members of a particular group are viewed negatively and denied employment based on their race, ethnicity or gender. Such programs view everyone as equal and worthy of consideration for the job based on their qualifications rather than their demographic traits.

3. Tie Break

These programs are restrictive in that they offer preferential treatment to the target group over others, if and only if the qualifications are equivalent. A small amount of weight is assigned the target group in hiring decisions. If two applicants with equal qualifications are being considered and one of the prospective employees fits the target group description, that individual’s application is given more weight.

4. Strong Preferential Treatment

This is the most restrictive and controversial type of affirmative-action program. In some cases, this includes filling quotas with preference given to the target group even when qualifications are inferior to those in the non-target group. These programs tend to be an attempt to address situations in which the members of a particular group are underrepresented at the company.

The type of affirmative action program-ranging from least to most restrictive, is important since the more a program prescribes employment decisions in favour of a particular group, the greater the violation of the workplace value on fairness. At the same time, the degree to which hiring decisions are based on race, gender or ethnicity influences people’s beliefs about their chances of getting the job.

Attitudes Towards Affirmative Action

The researchers noted that, in general, women and racial or ethnic groups are more positive about all types of affirmative action programs. The more the program is in the person’s best interests and the more likely they are to be helped by the program, the more positive they are about it. The more racist or sexist the individual, the less they support affirmative action programs. Even men from minority groups are less positive about restrictive programs that favour women. People who hold liberal beliefs are generally more positive about affirmative action programs than conservative-minded individuals. If people believe the target group is discriminated against, they are more likely to be positive about affirmative action programs aimed at that group.

The type of program matters in how people react–the more restrictive the program, the more negative the reaction, in general. For example, tie break options are evaluated more negatively than opportunity enhancement programs that focus on recruitment only.

In addition, the way the program is communicated is important to people’s reactions to it. The personal factors that affect a persons’ attitude toward an affirmative action program-race, gender, personal self-interest and beliefs about discrimination, racist or sexist attitudes and political ideology, have more bearing on how an affirmative action program is viewed when the program is explained in vague terms. The more clearly described the program, the more positively it is viewed. However, if the program involves strong preferential treatment measures, it will be viewed negatively.

The reasons for the creation of the program in the first place are important too. Certain explanations for the program will elicit more positive reactions. Support increases for programs that are designed to increase diversity, create equality and end discrimination. It decreases when the program is supposed to increase the numbers of an under-represented group.

Tips For Employers

Be Clear

Given the breadth of opinion on affirmative action, employers hoping to introduce an affirmative action program must be clear about what the program entails and what it is attempting to achieve. That is key in managing attitudes about it. Communicate the features of the program and detail the qualifications that new employees must have to get the job.

Avoid Preferential Treatment Programs

It is important that the program be seen as fair. The researchers recommend steering clear of attempting to remedy under-representation of women or minorities at the company with restrictive affirmative-action practices (tie-break and strong preferential treatment programs). This is because people sometimes assume that under-representation is due to factors other than discrimination. Also, hiring members of a particular target group when qualifications are inferior could build the belief that affirmative action programs ignore merit. This practice risks perpetuating the idea that protected groups are less well-qualified than others.

Beware How The Program Is Justified

Increasing diversity and remedying past discrimination are the best reasons for an affirmative action program. If your company has a problem with certain groups being underrepresented in the workforce, don’t rush to use affirmative action programs to remedy the situation. First, analyze what organizational practices or barriers exist that contribute to under-representation and eliminate them. Perhaps, the organization makes minority employees feel unwelcome and word about this has spread. Perhaps the company has not put energy into recruiting qualified applicants from all groups or practices discriminatory hiring practices.

Affirmative action programs can be useful in attracting qualified applicants but do not replace creating environments that support, welcome, respect and include women and minorities. Being fair, up-front and clear about the program and its rationale is key to a successful bid to diversify a company’s workforce.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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