Yes, Affirmative Action Has Downsides

by Roger Clegg

Wall Street Journal article last week, “The Trouble with Diversity Initiatives,” covers a new study that identifies problems with using affirmative action in corporate hiring and promotion.  The article notes that, according to the study, companies “looking to diversify their employee ranks should brace for a potential backlash.” Rachel Feintzeig reports: 

A meta-analysis from researchers at New York University, University of Michigan and George Mason University traces the roots of stigma that can erupt in organizations that implement affirmative action policies to attract women and racial minorities. The study dug into 45 previous pieces of research to identify the mechanisms that cause these programs to go awry. . . .

Companies that have affirmative action programs – some with a government contract are required to do so – risk subjecting minorities and women to increased scrutiny from their peers, [the] research suggests.

“When you implement policies like this it signifies that certain groups need extra help,” [one of the study’s authors] said. Other employees infer that the minority and women workers aren’t competent or able to nab roles on their own.

In addition, the research found that minority workers hired at companies with affirmative action policies are seen as less warm and less likeable. That’s because the policies are seen as making minorities and women more competitive, giving them a leg up in the race for resources and jobs.

“We tend to make negative attributions about people we compete with,” [the author] said, for example assuming they’re not nice. That can lead to less positive performance reviews from superiors.

And there can be a double blow to negative performance reviews, she added. Sensing the stigma of the policies, women and minorities can become anxious. Their confidence fades and their actual performance can suffer.

I’ll just add that corporate discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex is also illegal, as discussed here.