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Every company should rethink affirmative action.


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I listened last week to a recording of the commencement address that physicist Richard Feynman gave one year at the California Institute of Technology. The theme of the talk was the importance of scientific integrity. He tells the story of how a physicist once calculated the charge of an electron. Unfortunately, he used the wrong figure for the viscosity of air and so his calculation was off. It took a long while, however, for anyone to find the error, because other scientists, who were getting measurements that were really correct, would look for reasons why they must be wrong, and when they got wrong answers they didn’t question them, because they assumed they must be right. As Feynman put it, they just didn’t look as hard for reasons why some answers might be wrong, as compared to answers that were closer to what they wanted.

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This is an instructive story to keep in mind whenever we are told that companies should look especially hard to find employees that will move the company toward greater “diversity.” In the first place, if companies are looking especially hard for people of one color, then they are going to overlook and show less interest in people of another color. That is the point, right? Second, if your company has told you, a manager, that it wants to find qualified people of a particular color, then you inevitably are going to put your thumb on the scale whenever a candidate of the “right” color appears. Don’t want to disappoint the boss, you know.

Either way, you will not be hiring the best people. Sometimes the best person will also happen to be the “wrong” color, and so he won’t get hired. Other times, the person of the “right” color will seem to be suitable, but only because you are looking so hard to find someone of that color.

It will not do to say that there is nothing wrong with giving a preference on the basis of race when people are hired, so long as they are required to meet the same standards as everyone else once they are given their chance. In the first place, you have already hurt someone, namely the better qualified person who now gets either a less desirable job or no job. In the second place, there are degrees of competence, and even if the hired person meets the company’s standards, it is likely that they won’t be met to the same high degree as they would have if the better qualified person been hired. And in the third place, the company will, inevitably, be pressured to lower its standards at the post-hiring stage as part of its commitment to “diversity.” It must not only hire but also “retain” employees in a demographically and politically correct way.

Suppose the police pull someone over in part because he is black. It turns out that there are drugs in the car. Would the NAACP excuse the stop because, after all, ultimately everything worked out okay? Of course not, but this the mirror image of what the proponents of diversity are advocating for the workplace. It is all right to discriminate in hiring if the employee works out okay.

The New York Times’ experience with Jayson Blair is, no doubt, an extreme case, but other companies that demand diversity will inevitably sacrifice excellence as well. Here’s a pronouncement from the General Motors website: “All managers are expected to meet or exceed their diversity goals set through the Affirmative Action Program and initiatives and efforts. Executive representation goals have been set for each GM Sector and performance and targets are expected to be fully satisfied.”

Don’t tell me that this isn’t going to result in GM managers putting their thumbs on the scales in their hiring and promotion. The best people won’t get hired and promoted. Maybe this isn’t as big a deal as the Times fiasco (fewer cars get sold), or maybe it is (more cars crash).

If you hire according to factors A and B, then factor A doesn’t matter as much as when you hire only according to factor A and nothing else. If a company considers race or ethnicity as a factor in its hiring, then it will be weighing merit less. There is no way around this stubborn fact. And if it is known that the company does this, then the coworkers of the employees in the “benefited” groups will assume that those employees are not as qualified — and, of course, in the aggregate their assumption is perfectly correct, even if there are many exceptions to it.

Everyone loses. The company hires less-qualified people and make less money. People in the unfavored groups don’t get hired. Perfectly well-qualified people in the favored groups get stigmatized as “affirmative action hires” even when they aren’t. And unqualified people in the favored groups are put into positions where they inevitably fail, as Jayson Blair failed.

Companies should stop “celebrating diversity” and instead simply hire and promote the best people. The Jayson Blair affair is a wake-up call, not just to the Times, not just to the media, but to the whole country.

Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.



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