Diversity & Inclusion

How to Strengthen Your Affirmative Action Policies

As protests to end systemic racism spread across the United States and now the globe, many companies are being asked to not only say the words “Black Lives Matter” but also follow up on those words with meaningful action.


Myriad initiatives have been announced in the past few months, often focused on company efforts to have a positive and meaningful impact on the communities in which they operate and our broader society. While those “external” efforts are laudable, activists are starting to ask companies to look inward at their own employment practices to ensure their houses are in order, swinging the spotlight onto internal diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts.

Surprisingly, there is very little attention being paid to companies’ affirmative action programs. Not all organizations have an affirmative action program, although it’s required by law if they do business with the federal government (or with another company that does). Federal contractors represent a larger swath of U.S. employers than many realize—the Department of Labor (DOL) estimates there are roughly 420,000 entities.

That said, why aren’t companies sharing their equal employment and affirmative action efforts as part of the larger movement in our world today?

Why Is Affirmative Action Important?

Many negative connotations accompany the term “affirmative action.” Headlines almost exclusively focus on what I refer to as corrective affirmative action efforts, such as quotas, set-asides, point systems, etc. Such efforts are clear violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and are highly restricted by the Supreme Court. They are a temporary last resort reserved for when literally nothing else will work to stop discrimination in the workplace, and they are rare.

Still, some people believe that affirmative action means taking something from one group and giving it to another. In fact, it is exactly the opposite—the goals of affirmative action programs are rooted in making sure that is not happening (and does not become necessary).

Regardless of whether the words “affirmative action” are used in public forums, the visibility of the programs themselves and the efforts entailed can and should be elevated both within federal contractor organizations and in the public eye.

3 Ways to Ensure Affirmative Action Compliance

As business leaders look to strengthen their dedication to D&I, these three tips can help them reap the benefits of affirmative action:

1. Marshal the necessary resources. Most organizations chronically underfund their compliance teams, viewing affirmative action compliance as a check-the-box exercise that doesn’t generate revenue. In reality, companies that wholeheartedly embrace D&I enjoy concrete business benefits when making affirmative action a priority.

The DOL expects contractors to have a well-equipped, sizable affirmative action team at every location. While this expectation might be unrealistic from a practical standpoint, it does raise questions about whether companies that devote minimal staff and resources to affirmative action can comply with either the spirit or the letter of the law.

Human Resources leaders must ensure that their affirmative action programs have the funding, resources, and support they need to be effective. That starts with being vocal and reminding their company’s leadership of their existence and importance. The next step is to assess what you need and then ask for it.

2. Be self-critical. Take a hard, self-critical look at how your organization has previously approached affirmative action compliance, and spend some time considering new approaches. Perhaps what has become the “standard” way of approaching affirmative action compliance is not the standard we need.

We have more than half a century of experiences to look back on and learn from. We must use that extensive history, as well as each company’s past efforts, to chart a path forward.

The first question to ask yourself: “What (if anything) are we doing after our affirmative action plans (AAPs) are completed?” We tend to skip over the “identification of problem areas” step and jump straight into “solutions” that involve increased targeted outreach and recruiting efforts.

Has that approach been effective? This moment in history indicates that it has not. Finding a way to do this better in the future should be on every affirmative action practitioner’s mind.

3. Share mindful statements and solutions. As noted above, companies are under tremendous pressure to show the world they’re serious about diversity and equity. While many have released statements on social media pledging to foster more inclusive workplaces, some have announced ambitious plans to hire a specific number or percentage of black employees—a decision that could lead some to view those employees as “affirmative action hires” and not for their true talent and capability.

Affirmative action professionals know this, and they should be involved in developing these initiatives and crafting these messages.

When sharing your story and stance, be clear, concrete, and honest. Explain how your company previously approached diversity and compliance, trumpet any successes while being transparent about any shortcomings, and describe the new approaches you plan to incorporate going forward.

Before announcing or implementing any new policies, make sure the solution you present is legal, practical, and appropriate. Involve related affinity or employee resource groups you might have, or find outside resources to make sure the right messages are conveyed and that your good-faith efforts are not obscured by poor word choices or an inappropriate tone.

Embracing Affirmative Action

It has been more than half a century since race discrimination in employment was outlawed and affirmative action as we know it today was developed, but the playing field is still uneven. Ongoing misconceptions about affirmative action make meaningful progress more challenging, but those challenges should not be insurmountable.

Embracing affirmative action means identifying and changing systemic issues for the better; it should not mean instilling racial, religious, or gender-based quotas at your company. These quick fixes merely serve as a Band-Aid to cover a deep wound, and they often do more harm than good—to companies, to employees, and to society as a whole.

“Affirmative action”—the right conception of affirmative action—is the most powerful tool organizations have to address the systemic issues our society continues to face. At this moment in history, we must embrace it, elevate it, talk about it, understand it, and celebrate it.

Matt Nusbaum is the director of the BCG Institute for Workforce Development (BCGi). Nusbaum has more than 9 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 DOL, as well as those required by federal, state, and local enforcement agencies.

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