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Affirmative Action Policies Can Perpetuate Stigmas

Hiring of protected classes can lead to resentment, self-stigmatization

If not managed properly, employers’ affirmative action plans can lead to stigmas that may have long-term detrimental effects on the very workers the hiring policies are designed to help, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, New York University and George Mason University in Virginia analyzed the results of 45 existing studies on the impact of affirmative action plans. The researchers concluded employers can prevent negative reactions to affirmative action and improve corporate diversity initiatives by developing a deeper understanding of what triggers resentments and stigmas among co-workers.

“Many people have preconceived notions about what affirmative action is and what it means,” said David Mayer, Ph.D., a professor of management at the University of Michigan and one of the study’s three co-authors. “Probably the most prevalent misconception is that affirmative action is about hiring people who are less qualified because they are members of a minority or protected class.”

These misconceptions often lead to co-workers feeling resentful because they believe a new hire is receiving preferential treatment, the study found. In addition, co-workers may see a person hired through affirmative action as a competitor for company resources, and therefore less likeable, the research concluded. These perceptions can stigmatize new workers and may ultimately lead to negative job performance evaluations.

“It can develop into a productivity problem because workers who are not accepted and stigmatized, often through no fault of their own, will tend to be unhappier at work and therefore less productive,” Mayer said.

One of the most surprising aspects of the study is that co-workers’ perceptions and negative attitudes can lead to the affirmative action hires developing “self-stigmatizations,” according to David Kravitz, Ph.D., a professor of management at George Mason University and another author of the study.

“Even though they may be very well-qualified for the jobs, people who are stigmatized often will question why they were hired and in many cases, begin to doubt their own abilities,” Kravitz said. “It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because people in these situations often will meet but not exceed expectation levels.”

Employers can overcome these negative perceptions of and reactions to affirmative action policies with some common sense management techniques, according to Mayer and Kravitz. It’s critical to educate all employees about corporate affirmative action and equal employment policies.

“When the policy is portrayed as an outreach effort to cast a wider net in the community and find qualified job applicants from every walk of life, then the policy is usually viewed in a much more positive light,” Mayer said. “Employers should take time to explain the importance of identifying and finding qualified candidates from all segments of the community. Most people will agree and support these kinds of efforts.”

In addition, businesses need to make their recruiting efforts more transparent. Let co-workers know that a candidate was selected because of their qualifications, not because he or she is a member of a protected class.

“When a person is a member of a group targeted by an affirmative action plan, anyone who believes affirmative action involves preferences may not understand why [the person was] hired,” Kravitz said. “To eliminate stigmatization, employers must make sure employees know that the affirmative action policy is not about preferences and then highlight the competence and qualifications of the new hires.”

Kravitz and Mayer agreed employers should introduce new hires by explaining their job experience, personal interests and community involvement.

“It’s a good idea to show what kind of person the candidate is, and that he or she fits in well with the organization’s culture,” Mayer said. “Affirmative action and equal employment policies have done much more good than harm by opening up opportunities to millions of workers. If employers just take a little time and make the effort to avoid many of the misperceptions surrounding affirmative action, then they can improve their diversity efforts and increase productivity.”

Lisa Leslie, Ph.D., a professor of management at New York University, also co-authored the report, which is titled The Stigma of Affirmative Action: A Stereotyping-Based Theory And Meta-Analytic Test of the Consequences for Performance. The report appeared in the August 2014 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


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