What Is an Affirmative Action Plan (and Why You Need One in 2024)

In an ideal world, candidates of all backgrounds and demographics would have equal access to job opportunities. However, historic injustices have disproportionately affected certain groups of people, often limiting their professional successes. Though the world is becoming  a more equitable place, barriers to success still exist.

Luckily, human resources professionals can address some of these problems. But fostering Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in your workplace requires more than good intentions. You’ll need to improve processes at every level of the organization for your initiatives to take effect at scale — and it starts with attracting talent.

An affirmative action plan can help. Affirmative action focuses on finding job candidates from underrepresented groups to build a more diverse workforce. An affirmative action plan (AAP) specifies how your organization will find, hire, and support candidates from a variety of backgrounds. By reworking your hiring practices to improve diversity, you can help fight injustice and achieve several other benefits for your organization. It may even help you remain in compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

So what exactly does an AAP look like for modern enterprise? Let’s take a closer look at affirmative action and how you can create your own AAP to improve your hiring workflow.

What Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is a set of initiatives designed to improve employment and educational opportunities for members of underrepresented groups who have historically faced discrimination based on their racial or cultural background, gender, disability status, and more.

The History of Affirmative Action

In the United States, the first affirmative action law was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, with the goal of eliminating hiring discrimination among government contractors. President Lyndon B. Johnson later expanded on affirmative action legislation and signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This created further precedent for affirmative action, particularly in institutions with a history of discriminatory practices.

US-based companies started using Affirmative Action Plans (AAPs) in the 1960s to correct imbalances and injustices within the employment system as a response to historical discrimination. Affirmative action is closely associated with the United States, but many countries have implemented their own versions of affirmative action to address specific injustices in their cultures.

Today, federal contractors and subcontractors in the US are still required to have affirmative action plans in place. However, many other organizations opt to use them to codify fair and inclusive hiring practices.

Why Is an Affirmative Action Plan Necessary?

For many organizations, an affirmative action plan is required by local or federal law. For example, contractors with federal and state governments typically need to provide an approved affirmative action plan in order to start new projects.

However, affirmative action goes beyond legal compliance — it’s also culturally necessary to correct historic injustices and inequities in many cases. Well-designed affirmative action plans also support your organization’s values and long-term goals.

Even though laws and attitudes have changed over time, economic inequity and prejudice still persists for many groups, including people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities. This makes it difficult for people in these groups to access the education and work opportunities necessary to advance in their careers, regardless of their talent.

For example, generations of inequity have led to a racial wealth gap between Black and white families. On average, Black households hold 14.5% of the wealth of white households in the United States. The economic inequities result in less access to education and technology, making it more difficult to break into job markets. Affirmative action is designed to rectify these inequities by making employment opportunities more accessible to these groups.

What Are the Goals of Affirmative Action?

The primary goal of affirmative action is to promote equal opportunities for everyone in employment, education, and other aspects of life. Ideally, affirmative action will result in a qualified workforce that truly reflects the demographics of the general population.

Bias and discrimination against underrepresented groups can show up in hiring practices, which often leads to financial inequities. Affirmative action focuses on providing additional support to these groups to level the playing field.

This ultimately creates a more inclusive and diverse work environment where people of all identities are included and supported. Diversity will help your organization succeed, as you’ll have a broader variety of skills and life experiences to support your organization’s mission. In fact, 60% of respondents in a 2021 LinkedIn study said that diversity within their sales team contributed to success across their team.

The effectiveness of affirmative action has been debated since its inception, particularly for large corporations with complex hiring needs. It can be difficult to address both historical injustices and modern concerns of meritocracy in today’s competitive job market. Ultimately, building a diverse and fair workforce will look different for each company, depending on the industry and size of your organization. It may involve a mix of affirmative action and other equitable hiring practices.

How To Create an Affirmative Action Plan

Creating an affirmative action plan takes careful consideration of your company policies and processes. However, it isn’t as hard as you might think. Here’s a framework for creating one for your company:

1. Post an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Policy

An EEO policy is key to fostering a workplace free from discrimination. By aligning your company policies with the mandates of the Civil Rights Act, you’re taking an initial step toward fighting injustice.

To ensure transparency and inclusivity, it is crucial to prominently display this policy in your workplace. Choose a location that is easily visible and accessible to all employees. This communicates your commitment to fair employment practices and provides a reference point for employees seeking assurance around their workplace rights and responsibilities.

2. Create an Organizational Chart

Craft an organizational chart that goes beyond defining the roles within your workforce. Include essential details such as the race and gender of each employee, offering a comprehensive view of the demographic composition. You don’t need to share this with the entire company — it’s only for HR professionals seeking to improve diversity. But by understanding your demographics on a granular level, you enable your organization to take targeted actions toward addressing imbalances.

With Criterion, the built-in position management system is connected to every employee in your system. Employee demographic data can be mapped to positions, so you can easily see who is in each position, how much they make, and which demographics they represent. Use this information (along with any custom fields you’d like to create) to generate reports about diversity and gain visibility into how your affirmative action plan is improving other areas of DEIB.

3. Assess the Current Workforce

Conduct a thorough evaluation of the current labor market in your geographical area. Consider the availability of diverse talent for each role within your organization, and decide whether your workforce aligns with the broader diversity present in the market. If so, analyze what actions you’ve taken over the past few years and how they’ve helped you achieve these results. If not, you can use this analysis to set goals in the next step.

This analysis is critical to pinpointing specific areas for improvement in your hiring practices. It also helps your organization remain competitive by representing the evolving demographics in the employment landscape.

4. Set Goals and Make a Plan

Using the insights from the hiring market analysis in step three, set tangible hiring goals for your organization. It’s best to express these goals as percentages of hires within specific timeframes. For instance, you might say you plan to increase underrepresented minorities in leadership positions by 20% over the next 12 months. This provides a measurable benchmark and timeline for progress.

Once you set your goals, develop a step-by-step plan outlining the strategies and initiatives you’ll use to achieve them. This plan should encompass recruitment practices, training programs, and any necessary adjustments to existing processes. Document your plan to provide transparent access to other HR professionals and stakeholders in your organization.

In Criterion, you can easily create custom workflows for hiring and onboarding that correspond with company policy. You can determine how your teams handle tasks from the moment you receive a new application all the way through the hiring and onboarding process and beyond. Ensure your hiring decisions are properly documented while working to achieve your affirmative action goals, then improve diversity in certain departments by making training and promotions more accessible to all.

5. Set Audit Procedures

Finally, establish clear audit procedures for your Affirmative Action Plan (AAP). Define who will be responsible for conducting these audits and establish the frequency with which they will occur. Regular reassessment ensures that the AAP remains relevant and effective, aligning with changing organizational needs and evolving diversity objectives.

Leverage reporting as much as possible with these procedures. By generating reports on diversity, hiring, promotions, and more, you can make intelligent, data-driven decisions about how you address affirmative action and hiring moving forward.

Affirmative Action Plan Example

Affirmative action plans are generally lengthy documents detailing the state of your current workforce and your plan to improve diversity. The US Department of Labor provides a sample affirmative action plan for federal contractors t6

Most affirmative action plans start with an assessment of the demographics of your current workforce. They will then identify areas for improvement and set goals based on workforce statistics.

In the sample, it’s clear that an AAP isn’t just a documented procedure. It’s a thorough document detailing policies, procedures, responsibilities of certain key positions, and much more. The actions outlined in these plans are detailed, and directly relate to the current diversity of your workforce.

Challenges and Criticisms Surrounding Affirmative Action

Since its inception, affirmative action has been subject to criticism, and to be fair, implementing an AAP does come with unique challenges to consider:

  • Compromising Merit-Based Selection - The biggest criticism of affirmative action is that it may be counterintuitive to a merit-based selection process. For example, an organization may choose a candidate that fills specific diversity quotas rather than the most qualified candidate available. This can inadvertently perpetuate unfair stereotypes about specific groups, resulting in the opposite of the desired effect. To avoid this, affirmative action plans should expand their outreach options to focus on finding truly qualified candidates from different backgrounds. A multitude of qualifications can help you achieve both goals.
  • Workplace Conflicts - Affirmative action can also cause conflict in the workplace if there is a perception that certain employees have received preferential treatment. It’s essential to solicit feedback on your affirmative action plan from a variety of perspectives before its launch. Addressing biases within your company culture can also change these perceptions.
  • Detraction From Diversity - Over-emphasis on numerical hiring targets can actually drive your organization away from long-term equity and diversity goals. Affirmative action should be just one component of your equitable hiring toolbox. Consider focusing on training and mentorship opportunities when diverse, qualified talent isn’t currently available.

Final Thoughts

An affirmative action plan provides your organization with a road map for building a diverse and equitable workforce. While you may need an AAP to comply with local laws and regulations, you may also choose to create one as part of a larger DEIB initiative.

In the coming years, ensuring diversity in your workforce will only become more important. Achieving tangible results in this area takes action. But managing ethical hiring practices at scale is nearly impossible without the right tools. As an HR professional, you need a way to gain visibility into your workforce as a whole. You need software that helps you manage unique workflows while providing the robust infrastructure required to harness the power at the center of your organization: people.

Criterion HCM provides  best-in-class software for HR professionals to improve hiring, talent engagement, employee information, and payroll — all in one place. Criterion’s talent engagement can help you develop a consistent hiring and onboarding system that complies with your AAP. Generate custom reports, streamline background checks, integrate with any third-party software, and much more.

Discover an HCM built with real HR professionals in mind. Request a demo to learn more.

Conor Quinn
HCM Software Specialist focused on client and partner success.
Download This Whitepaper for an Enhanced Reading Experience
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.