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The HR Doctor Is In

Dear HR Doctor,

Is affirmative action dead as a part of a county's Human Resource program? Should county policies be changed?



Curious NACo member

Dear "Curious,"

Clearly the passage of Proposition 209 in California in November raised to a more audible pitch the growing sense that affirmative action is being reexamined. Before the election, President Clinton and others spoke about the need to "mend it, don't end it."

The Supreme Court in recent years has restricted some affirmative action practices by calling for "strict scrutiny" and more limited application of programs such as purchasing "set asides." In light of these trends, public agencies have reviewed how they currently apply affirmative action practices and what they will do in the future.

However, if affirmative action in your county means that decisions are made based only on race or gender and unquestioned preference in hiring, purchasing or other areas, then the answer to your question is yes - affirmative action of that type is over.

In fact, it was the perception that those approaches were wrong in the first place - that they substituted race or gender discrimination, however well intentioned, for past discrimination - which led to the growing sentiment for change.

The affirmative action which is far from dead I call "vigilant fairness." It means recognizing the realities of the modern work force. It is a diverse place which will suffer from lost productivity and unnecessary costs and waste if decisions are based on unlawful or inappropriate behaviors.

If Human Resource policies aren't proactive in identifying and correcting non-job related decisions, the liabilities will only grow, problems will compound and lawyers will have more work than they can handle.

The same is true if the county doesn't ask itself why there aren't more women or minorities in management, engineering, or public safety services. If that's the case, take steps to ensure that it's not due to a lack of sensitivity by county officials or unfair policies or attitudes.

Work force diversity and the value of it doesn't start and stop at entry-level jobs.

The affirmative action that is alive and well today consists of good business decisions based on job-related criteria, combined with attitudes and actions which recognize the advantages and realities of diversity and the importance of respect for every individual.

County affirmative action programs based on these principles, rather than preferences strictly based on race or gender, will continue to make important contributions.

We fear a society and government agencies increasingly divided and torn apart by divisions based on race or gender. We do ourselves a disservice by abandoning efforts to ensure that our Human Resource policies prevent that from happening.

Ending the approach to affirmative action described above doesn't make good business or public policy sense.

(HR Doctor was written by By Phil Rosenberg, director of Human Resources for Broward County, Fla.)


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