An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

Affirmative Action

What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action is a policy of including applicants of all races, creeds, colors, and national origins when considering job applications or providing employment. Affirmative action measures are proactive methods to provide equality in the present while providing equity for past discrimination. Many countries have adopted similar affirmative action measures to promote inclusivity.

What Was the Origin of Affirmative Action?

President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961, specifying that government contractors would "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." This order affected military contractors, public schools, and public universities, and its efforts to provide equity in employment and education were an important step toward the later protections in the Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation.

What Groups Are Covered by Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action’s primary aim is to provide a more equitable experience for disadvantaged groups. This began with efforts to help racial and religious minorities have the same opportunities as whites, and for women to have the same opportunities as men. Additional Equal Employment Opportunity laws extend protections to equal pay and restrict discrimination based on age or disability.

Where Does Affirmative Action Apply Today?

In the decades following its inception, affirmative action has gone through its share of refinement and controversy. The ongoing debate focuses on whether measures to provide equality exacerbate inequity among how organizations hire and treat minorities—for example, whether requiring the inclusion of Black candidates disadvantages equally-qualified Asian American candidates. After the US Supreme Court ruled against using racial quotas for hiring or education, most affirmative action measures have shifted to outreach programs in recruiting and retention.

Currently, nine states have an active ban on affirmative action: California, Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Idaho. Texas enacted a ban in 1996 which was overturned in 2003.

How Can Organizations Apply Affirmative Action Principles?

While equity has improved since the onset of affirmative action, there is still much work to do. Discrimination can occur in the smallest judgements and preconceived biases, so any decision where people evaluate other people must be handled carefully. This begins with language used in job descriptions and continues with every performance evaluation.

The conversation on affirmative action laws continues, but the benefits of a diverse workforce are already clear. Independently developing and implementing diversity measures will help organizations stay healthy, supported, and relevant.