Updated: Jan 22, 2021
A quota is a floor or a ceiling on something that is intended to limit something, such as foreign trade, sales goals, or conference attendance. In hiring, quotas are illegal. Regardless of whether it’s beneficial, benign, or detrimental, it is illegal to make hiring decisions solely based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). These are “protected classes” under federal law.
The need to protect certain people from employment discrimination was first codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was further solidified by 1972’s Title IX, which ensured no person in the U.S. would, “on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability, further defined how protected classes are treated relative to employment.
Instead of quotas, let’s talk about “diversity hiring,” or hiring for demographic diversity. Generally, governments cannot mandate private employers to pursue diversity hiring. Rather, diversity hiring is a policy or program that individual organizations implement to intentionally—or make a good faith effort to—increase the number of candidates in the recruiting pool who are 1) minorities, 2) from “diverse” backgrounds, or 3) from underrepresented communities.
What does it mean to be underrepresented? When too few of a particular group is employed in a certain occupation, that group is underrepresented. For instance, women overwhelmingly occupy positions as elementary school teachers. In fact, the ratio is 10 women to every one man. (At any level of public education, African American men account for just 7% of teachers.) Men are underrepresented in the elementary teaching profession. Further, it is in the best interests of our children that we increase the number of men, in particular Black men, in delivering education. And to do that, we must deploy diversity hiring.
Each individual employer develops their own approach, consisting of their own rules and policies, to accomplish their specific goals or address their individual problems. For example, the NFL established the Rooney Rule in 2003 to increase the number of minority candidates, especially African Americans, who were interviewed for head coaching positions and senior operations jobs. The rule requires teams to pause at some stage of the hiring process until some diversity benchmark has been reached for the pool of applicants at that stage. It’s not perfect, of course, but it has become a template for other corporations, like Facebook and Pinterest, who adopt the practice for certain positions.
Without intention, it is easy to assume the candidates in our pool are all the candidates that are available or worthy of consideration. However, it is a fallacy to conclude that, just because we don’t see them, they must not exist. We must be intentional about finding them.
Hiring for diversity is often associated with affirmative action. According to SHRM, “Affirmative Action Plans define an employer's standard for proactively recruiting, hiring, and promoting women, minorities, disabled individuals and veterans. Affirmative action is deemed a moral and social obligation to amend historical wrongs and eliminate the present effects of past discrimination.” Because it has negative connotations, most private employers avoid the term “affirmative action” even while implementing intentional hiring practices to increase their outreach to protected classes.
While there are many arguments against diversity hiring, a few are more common than others. First, when a “minority” is hired, opponents say it takes a job away from a white person and/or a man. This suggests these jobs belong to white people and/or men and they are, therefore, entitled to them … simply because of their whiteness and/or man-ness. Another argument states that the “minority” is hired only because of that person’s status as a minority, and not because the person is qualified to do the job. The logic is that, simply because they are “minorities,” they are incapable of being skilled or qualified. A third, and closely related argument, is that the “minority” who is hired is de facto less qualified than the white person and/or man. Hiring for demographic diversity does not advocate for hiring less-than-qualified candidates. These arguments, of course, are examples of racism and/or sexism.
Reverse discrimination is another common argument against diversity hiring/affirmative action. Over the 50+ years that affirmative action programs have been in existence, white men continue to [overwhelmingly and disproportionately] dominate leadership positions as well as occupations in many industries. The persistence of male-dominated industries proves that reverse discrimination does not exist.