To begin with, one needs to understand how these two concepts “Diversity and Inclusion” and “Affirmative Action” are different from each other. If we were to put these two words in a process, affirmative action will come as a step prior to Diversity and Inclusion.
In order to understand Affirmative Action better, there is a need to throw some light on the history of how it evolved. Affirmative Action is a result of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It was introduced to revert the wrong doings and discriminatory practices that the minority of the American population was exposed to.
Affirmative Action focuses on increasing the representation of the minority in the workforce. In the Indian context, the reservation system is a good example of Affirmative Action. The thought behind the reservation system practice is to simply give the minority and diverse members an equal footing with their other capable counterparts. Without that, practicing diversity and inclusion is futile.
Organizations that follow affirmative action are legally bound and they are not necessarily “inclusive organizations” in the true sense of the term. A set of separate strategies and rituals are required for that inclusion to take place.
After one has been able to take affirmative action, the next step is to make the employees within the organization value diversity. Valuing diversity, according to R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., includes creating awareness about the aspects of diversity and its benefits, helping employees to accommodate that new knowledge with what they already know and recognize the value it brings for the individual, team and the organization. This step is beyond just affirmative action and is based on the initiatives for inclusion and equity that the organization builds.
After affirmative action and valuing diversity, the next step is to determine how an inclusive culture can be created. This is because, affirmative action can only give the diverse members an entry through the door and valuing diversity will only make people aware. There is a need to bind this two together and create a more sustainable culture of repetitive behaviors that will ensure that the organization is inclusive.
This step is referred to as Diversity Management and it provides the business case for diversity and inclusion. In the diversity management step, the focus should be on taking a strategic approach to leverage the benefits of a diverse and inclusive culture so that organizational goals can be met. It helps in increasing organizational productivity, innovation, employee engagement and customer retention.
Affirmative action has a negative connotation to it and is often misunderstood or incorrectly implemented. Just like the current reservation and quota system which is often seen in negative light. Also, any preferential treatment towards a certain diverse group is looked at as a contradiction to the inclusion practices.
However, if we plan and implement affirmative action as a pre-requisite step to diversity and inclusion, we will realize that the slight perceived inequality introduced is, in reality, a best practice for enhancing the impact and effectiveness of diversity and inclusion initiatives within the organization.