Spring 1998, Volume XIII Number 2
Affirmative Action: A Dialogue on Race, Gender, Equality and Law in America

Affirmative Action in the Workplace

by Christopher M. Leporini

Corporate affirmative action deserves a distinct place in America's continuing dialogue on race, gender and inequality. In recent years, the affirmative action debate has focused on government-sponsored affirmative action and university admissions, leaving corporate affirmative action relatively unexamined. This oversight is significant, because affirmative action's future remains uncertain. The 1994 Republican revolution weakened affirmative action advocates' political clout, reducing political support from Capitol Hill. Several pending court cases and voter initiatives could potentially eliminate many forms of affirmative action. But corporate programs are distinct from government-sponsored affirmative action in ways that substantially increase their chances of survival.

The majority of corporate affirmative action programs are voluntary attempts to improve workforce diversity. They are unaffected by thorny constitutional issues, such as those raised by the lawsuit against the University of Michigan, which plague university admissions programs. Jennifer Gratz, a white student, alleges the university's affirmative action program denied her admission based on her race, even through she was qualified. Terry Pell, senior counsel for the Center for Individual Rights, makes a clear distinction between the Michigan case and voluntary corporate affirmative action. The Washington D.C.-based public interest law firm is suing the university on behalf of Ms. Gratz. He argues that the purpose of the university program is irrelevant, because it violates the Fourteenth Amendment. "If affirmative action is illegal and unconstitutional, it doesn't matter whether it serves a purpose," Pell said.

Corporate programs, however, don't face this kind of legal challenge. Still, corporate affirmative action suffers from a public perception problem. Its nature is often misunderstood, because people do not make distinctions between types of affirmative action. According to Harvard University Professor of Sociology Barbara Reskin, the popular belief that affirmative action means quotas is unfounded. "What people object to doesn't exist," Reskin said; "quotas are illegal, except under special circumstances as a court-prescribed remedy."

Corporate affirmative action encompasses a wide range of strategies often not recognized as affirmative action. These programs include aggressive outreach to women and minorities, including recruitment and mentoring programs. Kraft Food's Management Development programs successfully implemented this strategy. In 1994 Kraft's managerial representation of women increased, despite an overall management workforce reduction. Silicon Graphics, Inc., a California technology company, also utilizes these kinds of comprehensive diversity initiatives. "Management training sessions are designed to help managers bridge communication gaps they might not even realize exist," said Silicon Graphics Director of Diversity Initiatives, Deborah Dagit. Inclusion training helps managers to recognize how factors such as race and gender can affect relations between coworkers. These programs, however, also address other issues that can affect work performance, including assertiveness and personality conflicts.

"Having a more diverse team leads to greater innovation and creativity as well as opening up the possibilities of different perspectives," Dagit said. This is one of a number of benefits that companies report from affirmative action programs. Another benefit is the forging of comfortable customer relationships. Businesses are attempting to sell their products to diverse markets, and having a diverse workforce can only aid this goal.

"When implemented seriously, affirmative action programs can have a profound influence on offering women and minorities opportunities," said Helen Norton, Director of Legal and Public Policy for the National Partnership for Women and Families. While the glass ceiling still exists to some extent, Norton acknowledges, it would be far worse without these types of programs. Less then 5% of senior managers in Fortune 1000 companies are women and minorities, according to the fact-finding report issued by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission in 1995. These numbers are far disproportionate to the groups' representation in the workforce. Women comprise 46% of the total workforce, and minorities comprise 21%. The commission endorsed corporate affirmative action as a tool to fully utilize a diverse labor force and maintain a competitive presence in the global economy.

Some workers resent the intrusions they feel diversity programs impose on them. Norton attributes this to inadequate communication of goals by managers. In fact, the problem may be more complex. Opponents of affirmative action are motivated by a wide range of concerns. Some believe that it runs contrary to the idea of equality, while others feel that it furthers the perception that minorities cannot succeed without special help.

Survey results show that Americans are deeply divided over affirmative action. According to Princeton University Politics Professor Jennifer Hochschild, a number of factors may influence these national survey results, including the way the interviewer introduces her/himself and the order of questions asked in the survey. Loaded terms such as quotas, preferences, and reverse discrimination tend to produce inflammatory results. "Although these factors can serve to undermine the credibility of an individual survey, collectively they give a pretty good sense of how people feel about affirmative action," Hochschild said. Barbara Reskin also argues that the grass roots opposition to affirmative action portrayed by the news media doesn't exist. She described the disparity between news stories about support for affirmative action and the truth as "mind blowing." Reskin cited surveys as evidence that support for affirmative action has remained stable over the past 20 years.

Public opinion has taken on a particular importance in light of California's Proposition 209, which banned state-sponsored affirmative action. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the proposition's constitutionality, opening the door for similar bills to appear in other states. However, as the experiences of Silicon Graphics and other California companies demonstrate, affirmative action can persist in the corporate world, even after it is abandoned by government. "This decision has not lessened our company's commitment to affirmative action," Dagit said. In fact, though Silicon Graphics is required to practice affirmative action because the company's business involves government contracting, its efforts extend beyond the minimum mandated by federal law.

Strong corporate support for affirmative action programs makes it likely that such programs will persist, even in the absence of government support. In the final analysis affirmative action can prove beneficial to a company's bottom line. "We are in a strong economy where corporations are competing for quality workers" says Norton, "and the majority of new entrants into the labor markets are women and minorities." Diversity programs can help businesses maintain competitiveness in vying for these labor resources. A 1994 survey of corporate executives found that 38% of executives saw diversity initiatives as a competitive issue, and almost half said it was a business need. Only 4% gave social responsibility as the reason for encouraging diversity. Ultimately, corporate affirmative action may survive primarily as a function of our increasingly global and diverse economy.

Christopher M. Leporini is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism; he is an occasional contributor to Focus.


Spring 1998 Issue Home | Why Race Matters
Affirmative Action as Social and Legal Policy
Affirmative Action, Diversity and College Admissions
Gender, Race, and Affirmative Action

Reconceiving Merit | Affirmative Action in the Workplace
Constitutional Status of Affirmative Action
Book Recommendations | Contributors


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