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Affirmative action in hiring: challenges and solutions

The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in higher education may ripple into the business world. Big-name corporations fear a dent in workplace diversity. Discover what this means for hiring, and how businesses can adapt to foster inclusion and find talent beyond traditional confines.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

affirmative action in hiring

The Supreme Court recently ruled that educational institutions can’t use affirmative action to favor one race over another. Federal law has prohibited that in hiring for a very long time, and yet there is an extensive discussion about how this ruling – technically unrelated to hiring – will affect business.

Some big businesses – including American Airlines, Apple, Bayer, Ikea, Paramount, Starbucks, and Hershey – submitted an Amicus Curiae brief to the court saying that prohibiting universities from running their affirmative action programs would negatively affect businesses. These businesses (called Amici in legal terminology) state:

“An essential part of the diversity Amici seeks is racial and ethnic diversity. Given these priorities, Amici have a significant interest in how universities consider and admit applicants: they rely on the nation’s schools to educate and train their future workers.”

Because the court rule against the universities (specifically Harvard and University of North Carolina, but applicable to all universities that accept federal funding), are these businesses correct that this will have a negative impact on their companies? If we assume that the Amici are correct, here’s what businesses must do to overcome this problem and keep increasing their diversity.

Expand your entry-level recruiting

While people panicked about the effect this would have on Black students, they ignored a reality of American higher education: Everyone with a high school diploma can attend college somewhere. There are many schools with open admissions policies. Some schools will even help you get your GED or high school diploma so that you can attend college.

Another truth is that anyone admitted to Harvard or UNC, even with a boost from affirmative action, could gain entrance into another good school. Very few students get into Harvard, regardless of race or background. Every single one that has could easily excel at another school.

In other words: companies that focus their recruiting only on the top schools limit who can get a job. Rather than relying on schools to seek out diverse students, businesses can recruit diverse candidates at more schools.

Because you can do recruiting virtually, you don’t have to increase your college job fair costs by sending recruiters to every school you want to consider. Arrange video conferences and fly in top candidates.

Make your business a place people want to work

You will never increase your diversity if you strictly rely on recruiting people from universities. Getting people in the door is only a temporary fix if you don’t create an environment where everyone feels welcome.

A Workable survey found that businesses do focus on demographic diversity but need action plans once they get people onboard. What are you doing to make employees of all races and backgrounds feel equal and included?

Do you focus on building strong teams, or do you focus on pointing out differences? A recent episode of Freakonomics looked at whale hunting in the 19th century. Michele Baggio, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Connecticut, looked at whaling ships to study crew diversity’s impact on performance.

Baggio found something interesting that businesses can learn from today: the U shape involved in diversity. He said:

“We find that the relationship between racial diversity and performance measured by revenue has a U-shape. So that means that very homogeneous teams, they perform well. The revenue is high. As diversity increases, the revenue decreases, so there’s a cost to diversity until it’s just a minimum. And then a higher level of diversity, the performance increases again, and basically overweights the initial costs.”

In other words, when you have a group of similar people, adding a few outsiders makes the situation worse. But when you have a genuinely diverse crew, they learn to work together and bring an increase in strength.

As long as you focus only on getting a few people in the door rather than building an environment where people can use their strengths, you won’t be a great organization for all people.

Provide opportunities at the high school level

If it’s important to you to hire candidates from certain high-ranking schools, then help high school students achieve the grades, test scores, and experience burdens necessary for admittance. Instead of waiting for universities to find and train diverse students, find them yourselves.

Offer summer internships to low-income students – regardless of race – who wouldn’t necessarily have the parental relationships to get such opportunities. Provide donations to struggling schools for things like AP classes that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Ask school districts what they need.

Is a college degree necessary for success?

Do the jobs you struggle to fill need college degrees? If yes, do they need to be from specific schools? Do they need to be recent? Can you look at people with some life experience instead? What about people with alternative forms of training and education?

College is valuable, but it’s not the only experience of value. And pay attention to people who perhaps didn’t have the opportunities to do unpaid internships because they had to keep working fast food to feed themselves and their families.

Evaluate what you need in a role before using a university degree as a proxy for capabilities. This is more difficult, but you’ll value looking beyond big-name schools if you value diversity.

Remember Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race. This means you cannot hire someone because they are Black any more than you can hire someone because they are White. You can seek out people from a wide variety of backgrounds, make your application process easy for all to apply, and advertise jobs on niche job boards, but you have to hire the best candidate, regardless of race.

That’s been the case for many years, and this ruling doesn’t change that. It only changes your traditional pipeline, so expand that pipeline.

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