What Is Affirmative Action?

In 1969, President Nixon ordered agencies to set up programs to foster equal opportunity for minorities and women. Those programs require agencies to collect data about personnel actions to make sure they are fair and non-discriminatory. Agencies also must compare their workforces to the U.S. civilian labor force to discover any job categories in which women and minorities are underrepresented. The comparisons are used to formulate multi-year affirmative employment plans.

Until 1987, agencies were required to set annual goals for underrepresented groups in categories where vacancies were expected, but the Reagan Administration did away with the requirement. Instead, agencies are free to set goals for job categories and occupations, but only where a "conspicuous absence or manifest imbalance" exists. Since 1978, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has overseen agency affirmative employment efforts. In 1987, EEOC directed agencies to focus on removing barriers to the advancement of women and minorities.

Managers, though, are not required to meet quotas and they cannot choose unqualified job candidates. Rather, they may take race, national origin or gender into account, but only when choosing among qualified applicants.

Managers sometimes mistake the goal of achieving equal employment opportunity for a mandate, according to a draft report from the Merit Systems Protection Board. "This can occur," the report concludes, "when a supervisor believes it is important to correct the underrepresentation of women or minorities in his or her work unit and so feels compelled to overemphasize the race, national origin, or sex of applicants without ensuring first that they are also high-quality candidates." But the report also acknowledges that managers, to avoid alienating white employees, sometimes allow or lead them to believe they had no option but to select a minority or female candidate for a position.

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