Does anti-discrimination look like discrimination?

By my reckoning, affirmative action should often make organizations look more biased in the direction they seek to correct, rather than less.

Imagine two groups of people in roughly equal numbers, type A and type B. It is thought by many that B people are unfairly discriminated against in employment. The management of organisation X believe this, so they create a policy to ensure new employees include roughly equally many As and Bs.

The effects of this policy include:

  1. a large benefit to many Bs previously near the threshold for being employed
  2. a small cost to all type Bs working at X, who will to varying degrees be suspected more of not meriting their position.
  3. a large cost to many As previously near the threshold for being employed
  4. a small benefit to all As working at X, who will to varying degrees be suspected of more than meriting their position.

Look at the effects on type Bs. Those well clear of the threshold have a net cost, while those near enough to it have a net benefit. This should in decrease the motivation of those well above the threshold to work at X and increase the motivation of those of lower ability to try. This should decrease the average quality of type B employees at X, even before accounting for the new influx of lower quality candidates. At the same time the opposite should happen with type As.

Now suppose the only quota at X is in hiring. Promotions have no similar adjustment. On top of whatever discrimination exists against Bs, there should now be even fewer Bs promoted, because they are on average lower quality at X, due to the affirmative action in hiring. Relative to less concerned organisations, X should end up with a greater proportion of As at the top of the organization.

Is this what really happens? If not, why not?

8 responses to “Does anti-discrimination look like discrimination?

  1. I don’t think it happens all that often:

    For one, if Bs have been habitually discriminated against, then there will probably less Bs available to hire. Assuming the affirmative action policy doesn’t allow Bs to have higher salaries than As, it will be hard for any firm to reach the desired 50/50 ratio to begin with.

    Furthermore, I think it would be impossible to distinguish between the merit base promotions of mostly As and the discriminatory-based promotion of As. In other words, in a world where discimination against Bs is the norm, why should I believe that this magically is not true when it comes to promotions?

    • if Bs have been habitually discriminated against, then there will probably less Bs available to hire

      That depends on how the level(s) at which the discrimination is active compare to the qualification level(s) at which hiring is done. If teachers or colleges are discriminating against Bs, then someone who wants to hire Bs fresh out of college will find a reduced applicant pool. Likewise if other businesses are discriminating against new B applicants but what you really need is an applicant with 5 years experience.

      But if you’re hiring at the same level where others are unfairly discriminating, you can find yourself with a markedly increased or improved B applicant pool, simply because your competitors are trying to pull all the As out themselves. Supply and demand then drives down the average quality of the remaining As and drives down the asking wages of the remaining Bs; not great for the Bs, but a great deal for people willing to hire them.

  2. Assuming that there is actually discrimination at work to begin with, the benefit for Bs should be to Bs previously just above the threshold for being employed. The average low-level hire from a B should therefore be slightly more skilled than the average low-level hire from an A.

    I would further guess that in many companies, “low level hires” (office workers, temps, receptionists, warehouse workers) are handled differently than “high level hires” (executives). The former could be hired almost entirely at the discrimination of a low level manager, while the latter would be hired based on reputation.

    A low level manager looking for someone who has basic skills and etiquette might choose from a wide variety of applicants based on “compatibility;” knowing little about a B except his/her B status would encourage the manager to choose As who were slightly less skilled.

    I’m getting too complicated for a a comment; but my point is that a B with a stronger resume is more likely to have a reputation or accomplishments to be judged on, whereas a skilled B who is just beginning may not and will simply be seen as a “B.”

  3. I’m not used to the formatting conventions here… and there is no edit or delete button. Alas.

  4. This assumes that “threshold for being employed” is equal for both A and B before affirmative action. How does the analysis change if “threshold for being employed” is much larger for B then A before affirmative action?

  5. You are assuming that the quality of an employee is fixed.
    The argument is that people who are of lower standards due to sociological reasons can improve significantly when given an out-of-turn opportunity to join an organisation.
    I think the only way to solve this is by measurement. Arm-chair thoughts might not really help :)

  6. No, that will probably not happen, because your chain of reasoning relies on having more Bs in the organization after the anti-discrimination legislation. You forgot to account for the increase in Bs available to promote.

  7. Daniel Kokotajlo

    “This should in decrease the motivation of those well above the threshold to work at X and increase the motivation of those of lower ability to try.”

    Perhaps this is true, but it ignores a potentially stronger effect in the opposite direction. Since the organization is signalling to the world that it cares about ending discrimination against B’s, people will think (rightly or wrongly) that the organization is a friendly work environment for B’s.

    This will increase the motivation of all B’s to work at X. This will create a larger applicant pool of B’s, which will result in higher average quality of B’s (given fixed quotas of B’s being hired) or else a higher total number of B’s hired.

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