Global HR Glossary

Affirmative action

Affirmative action promotes diversity and equal opportunities in the workforce, helps address historical discrimination, and ensures compliance with anti-discrimination laws, fostering a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

  • Definition

  • Examples

What is affirmative action in the workplace?

Affirmative action is a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of past discrimination, and prevent it in the future. In simpler terms, affirmative action is a policy that promotes equal opportunity by giving opportunities to groups that have been historically marginalised or discriminated against.

In the US, affirmative action is enforced by federal law. Businesses of any size must follow these policies, which apply to all employment sectors.

Businesses must use hiring practices that are fair and inclusive, not merely in theory but in practice. This might involve adjusting job descriptions to be gender-neutral, offering flexible working hours to accommodate different needs, and ensuring that interview panels are diverse.

Employees must understand that affirmative action doesn't mean less qualified individuals are chosen over more qualified ones. Instead, the policy ensures that all individuals, regardless of their background, have an equal shot at opportunities.

Failing to adhere to affirmative action has severe consequences for any business. Depending on the jurisdiction, penalties can range from fines, legal lawsuits, and possible loss of contracts with the federal government.

Each country will have its own laws regarding affirmative action that must be met when employing international employees. It's best to consult with a legal representative familiar with the foreign country or utilise a workforce development service to achieve and maintain compliance.

Examples of affirmative action

Affirmative action can be applied in various ways, depending on the context and goals of the organisation or institution. Here are some examples of affirmative action practices:

Quota systems

Occurring most often in education or employment settings, quota systems allocate a certain percentage of opportunities to disadvantaged groups. These could include racial or ethnic minorities, women, or individuals with disabilities. The goal isn't to give preferential treatment but to correct historical imbalances and foster diversity.

Companies might set targets for hiring or promoting employees from specific demographics. Traditionally, certain groups may have been underrepresented or faced systemic barriers to access. To rectify this, an organisation might set a specific quota for employees from these groups to create a diverse mix of backgrounds and perspectives on its campus.

Higher education admissions

Universities and college institutions in several countries have used affirmative action for incoming student admissions. Historically, colleges considered an applicant's race, ethnicity, or gender as one of many factors during the admissions process. 

In the US, a landmark Supreme Court decision in June 2023 ended race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Schools will need to seek other methods to enhance the diversity of their student bodies going forward.

Political party quotas

Many countries also implement affirmative action in their political structure. Australia, for example, has put in place a gender quota system for political party candidates. This policy aims to increase female representation in the government and reduce the historical underrepresentation of women in politics.

Political parties are required to have at least 40% of their candidates be from either gender, ensuring more opportunities for women to hold positions of power. In recent years, countries like Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa have also implemented similar quota systems to increase diversity and representation in politics.

Employment Equity Act

In Canada, the Employment Equity Act requires federal contractors and subcontractors to take measures to reduce employment barriers for four designated groups: women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities, and visible minorities. These companies must have a workforce that reflects the diversity of the Canadian population, meaning they need to take affirmative action steps to address any underrepresentation.

What makes the act unique is its emphasis on equity rather than equality, which recognises that different groups may need different supports to achieve equal outcomes. For example, an employer might create job postings that appeal to a diverse range of candidates or offer flexible working arrangements to accommodate individuals with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities.

Related articles