Today’s efforts to drive workplace equality look vastly different from a generation ago. Employment policies once spurred by federal mandate and regulatory compliance are now adopted as “best practice” and “competitive advantage,” says Verna Myers, Esq., who is president of Verna Myers Consulting Group in Massachusetts. “The impetus has changed and outcomes have improved,” she says.
Myers, a diversity consultant, stops short of calling equal opportunity in the workplace a success, even as the country gears up for a presidential election that will result in a victory for equal opportunity in at least one of America’s two top jobs. “Success would infer that we have arrived; and, although there has been significant progress, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” she insists.
That work includes understanding strategies existing to promote equal opportunity, recognizing how to leverage them in individual workplaces and supporting the expansion of these efforts, Myers explains. “While there is some overlap between these equal opportunity initiatives, both in philosophy and practice, there are significant differences, varying threats and unvetted opportunities,” she says.
Building on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in the workplace, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, establishing affirmative action policy and banning discrimination in employment practices based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Affirmative action is remedial in its approach: righting past wrongs in recruiting, hiring, training and promoting employees of previously excluded groups.
“By all accounts, affirmative action has aided in the advancement of minorities in the corporate sector,” insists Carl C. Jefferson, president and CEO of the National Association of African American Human Resources.
Support for affirmative action and opposition to it are widespread. In the public opinion poll Rasmussen Reports, 46 percent of respondents say such programs are no longer necessary, while only 32 percent believe they should continue. This November, voters in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska may elect to end affirmative action.
Affirmative action suffers from a poor public perception, Jefferson says, adding it has never required employers to hire the unqualified. “Preferential treatment, reverse bias, quotas and targets have obscured the actual policy goals and intentions of the law,” he says.
Myers concurs, but argues that while affirmative action has been an effective tool to remedy past discrimination, “simply redressing and reversing discrimination is not enough.”
Diversity is one step further in the right direction, Myers asserts. “[It] builds on affirmative action,” she says.
Diversity programs, which acknowledge differences of race, ethnicity and gender to religion, sexual orientation and education, have grown in popularity among U.S. corporations since the 1990s. These programs commonly include diversity training, mentoring initiatives and minority affinity groups.
“Unlike affirmative action, which is required by law, diversity is a business imperative,” states Jefferson.
In today’s global economy, businesses use diversity initiatives to gain a competitive edge in a marketplace of diverse stakeholders. “Companies align diversity efforts to organizational goals that increase profit, performance and productivity,” says Jefferson.
He adds that workplace diversity does little to develop the full potential of minorities.
If diversity is about profits, then inclusion is about people.
“Inclusion does more than recognize differences for monetary gain, it embraces them for the common good of the organization and its stakeholders,” explains Jefferson.
Companies support inclusion with programs that empower unique contributions and promote collaborative learning and leadership. Efforts include leadership training, pipeline projects, structured employee sponsorship, and succession planning and placement.
“Real inclusion is embedded in corporate culture,” says Myers. Inclusiveness leverages the knowledge, skills and experience of all employees so that organizations are continually changing how they work and grow, she adds.
Jefferson points out that few companies will progress beyond this level.
Corporate social responsibility
Progressive companies have ventured into the new arena of corporate social responsibility, which challenges employers to sacrifice immediate, short-term profits and convenient practices to operate in ways that benefit society as a whole. CSR programs include corporate volunteerism and private-public-nonprofit partnerships.
Myers applauds CSR initiatives. “This broader level of involvement in society outside the walls of corporate America may finally begin to address some of the social injustices that perpetuate racism and inequality inside [the workplace],” she says.