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In the Affirmative

Sherwood Ross is a freelance writer who covers workplace issues for Reuters

Companies that use affirmative action guidelines when recruiting say they are getting good workers even when the applicants’ educational attainments are wanting.

Company supervisors told economists at Michigan State University that the minority and female employees hired by their firms under affirmative action guidelines performed as well as other workers.

After studying employment data from 3,200 businesses in four large metropolitan areas, economist Harry Holzer concluded: “Education does predict how well people will perform on the job, but educational attainment is not the only predictor. You have to look at the applicant’s other skills and qualities, and they might matter more than a little more education and experience.”

Apparently, human resources executives are doing just that at companies obligated to adopt affirmative action policies because they do business with the federal government.

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An affirmative action policy differs from the equal opportunity statute of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That law requires employers of 15 or more workers not to discriminate against minorities and women when they hire.

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An affirmative action policy, however, requires employers “to actively seek out and hire women and minorities,” explained Susan Krell, managing partner in the Hartford, Conn., office of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman, a national law firm that represents managements.

Holzer and economist David Neumark, also of Michigan State, looked at data about the last worker hired at each of the companies surveyed, noting which followed affirmative action guidelines.

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Those that did hired black women with about one-quarter of a year less education and Latino men and women with about one-half year less education. The educational levels for black males hired were the same at companies that followed either policy.

When asked to rate job performance, supervisors at the affirmative action firms said that minority employees handled their jobs as well as other workers.

Holzer cited several reasons for the positive showing:

First, “The fact that the [affirmative action] employers recruit more heavily and screen more intensively means that they attract a lot more minority applicants. The chances are that they will draw in somebody who is a good worker is greater even if they don’t look as good on paper.”

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Second, the new hires receive training to bring them up to company job standards. “The extra training that these establishments give their [protected group] employees might be a way to compensate for any initially weaker credentials and/or performance and thus to offset any potential productivity losses.”

The companies surveyed are in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles.

According to Rose Mary Wentling, a professor of human resource education at the University of Illinois, affirmative action has lost favor “with politicians and the public” in recent years but many corporations are working harder to achieve work force diversity.

Michigan State’s Holzer agreed: “If you look at the various political attempts to get rid of affirmative action, you will see that the business sector is not involved in them.”

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Holzer added: “People have a very simplistic view of affirmative action. They think it means that you’re just lowering the bar for people to jump over. That may be, but it’s a lot more besides that. Even if employers lower the bar they are looking for people with strong qualities and it seems, by and large, they are getting them.”


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