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Question 110: Should a manager voluntarily adopt an affirmative action plan?

I am general manager of a company providing parts and service for a wide variety of small appliances. Founded just after World War II, the business flourished and expanded, so that now we operate in three locations and have nearly one hundred employees. Members of the founding family own all the stock, but it has been more than ten years since any of the owners took an active interest in the business. I was the first executive hired by the family, initially on a part-time basis to take care of legal and financial matters. As the founders retired and their children and grandchildren continued to receive a satisfactory rate of return while pursuing other interests, the family entrusted more and more responsibility to me. For all practical purposes, I now am solely responsible for making policy decisions.

Employee relations have been good, and our employees are not unionized. All of them receive a generous benefits package. Our key employees, the service technicians, receive a percentage of the labor charges on the work they do; during the thirty-day-guarantee period, they are required to make good any defects in their work without additional compensation. Other employees are paid at going rates, but our benefits package gives us a competitive edge in getting and holding good people.

In the early days, the family hired relatives and friends, and practiced a great deal of favoritism among employees. As my role increased, I put in place a simple and straightforward employment policy: Do what the law requires in offering equal employment opportunities and nondiscriminatory treatment of employees, but hire strictly on the basis of an individual’s qualifications, and advance employees strictly on the basis of performance. The unintended result is that more than two-thirds of our employees, including all but two of our service technicians, are white males.

Now we are under some pressure to hire more women, blacks, and members of other minorities. Some of the pressure comes from advocacy groups, some from certain of our institutional customers (whose business is vital to us), some from the threat of bad publicity, and some from vulnerability to lawsuits. I am considering a range of options. One is to seek for any job that opens up a woman, a black, or a member of another minority better qualified than any white male applicant, and perhaps even offer a premium if necessary. Another is to give preference to women and minorities when applicants’ qualifications are roughly equal. A third is to put a virtual freeze on hiring white males, making exceptions only when no other minimally-qualified applicant can be found.

I also need to rethink our policy on advancing employees. Changing it would be a more delicate matter than changing hiring policy, because most employees will resent it if someone whose job performance is inferior moves ahead of them.

In deciding what to do I have to consider the law and each option’s probable consequences for long-term profitability. But I also know there has been a good deal of debate about the ethical aspects of so-called affirmative action, and I want to adopt a policy that will be compatible with the requirements of Catholic teaching.


This question concerns the duty of a business to help overcome injustice in the wider society. The principles for answering this question are the business’s legal obligations and its own common good: efficient cooperation and fairness to all participants. The business should fulfill its legal obligations and remedy any injustices of which it has been guilty, but should not voluntarily attempt to remedy others’ injustices. Moreover, programs of affirmative action that systematically prefer others to white males are neither just nor an effective remedy for past and ongoing injustices against women and members of minority groups. Therefore, the questioner should not adopt a voluntary affirmative action program. However, even if the pressures the questioner describes are unreasonable, he or she should hire more women, blacks, and members of other minorities insofar as the good of the business itself requires doing so.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Catholic teaching does not offer any decisive answer to your question, but I shall sketch out a view I believe consonant with it.

The common good of the business is the basis of your managerial authority—that is, of your right and duty to make decisions, including those shaping company policy on hiring and promotions. The business is a cooperation among the owners, customers, employees, suppliers, and, of course, you as manager. The common good of this ongoing cooperation is its efficiency together with justice in all participants’ interrelationships, including their fair sharing in the burdens and benefits accruing from their cooperation.

Like any other member of civil society, the business should obey just laws and conform even to unjust ones when that is required by the common good either of society at large or of the business itself (see LCL, 874–83). Moreover, the business must rectify any injustice it has done. Insofar as it is a cooperation limited by its specific, agreed upon purpose, however, its common good forbids you, as manager, to undertake voluntarily to remedy past or ongoing injustices for which it is not itself responsible (see q. 100, above).

Someone will object that this position belittles the vast injustices to which women, blacks, and others have been and, in some cases, still are being subjected, and shows little compassion. That is not so. The enslavement of blacks, the spoliation of native peoples, and the murder of many members of both groups were terrible crimes, and probably most descendants of the victims still suffer from the consequences of past, and perhaps also ongoing, injustices. Many members of other minorities—for example, orientals—and many women also have been victims of social and economic injustices. Victims of injustices deserve vindication, and all injustices should be rectified insofar as possible. But your company’s responsibility for doing that is limited to the injustices of which it has been guilty, except insofar as presumably just laws might require it to help fulfill the duty of society as a whole to rectify other injustices.

Moreover, programs of affirmative action that systematically prefer others to white males in hiring and promoting are neither a just nor even an effective means for political society to use in trying to rectify injustices.315 In the first place, they give preference to entire groups, though some members of those groups are not at an equal—or, indeed, even any—disadvantage due to past or ongoing injustices, and it is irrational to try to remedy an injustice by giving preference to individuals who are not among its actual victims. Second, such affirmative action imposes very light burdens, or none at all, on wealthy people who probably have profited most from past injustices while imposing very heavy burdens on white males who are in direct competition with preferred individuals for jobs and advancement. Yet some of these men and their families are themselves gravely disadvantaged, and not all bear significant responsibility for past injustices or have benefited significantly from them. Third, such affirmative action does nothing to rectify, and may even aggravate, socioeconomic injustices suffered by people discriminated against on grounds that have not received political and social recognition—for example, those who hold unpopular religious beliefs or have unattractive physical traits. Fourth, insofar as affirmative action imposes the burden of rectifying socioeconomic injustices on businesses, a disproportionate share of that burden must be borne by their neediest customers, least well-paid employees, hardest-pressed suppliers, and least prosperous investors.

Christian morality is not individualistic; it recognizes the value of people’s different gifts and potentialities for cooperation, and insists on the inherent value of community (see CCC, 1936–37; LCL, 353–56, 359–60). Excluding conse~quentialism, it condemns treating any person as a mere means to the advantage of others (see CCC, 1929; LCL, 380–88). By these Christian standards, the efforts of secularists to rectify social injustices generally fall short in at least three ways. They often tend toward egalitarianism and fail to take adequate account of people’s diverse gifts and potentialities. They frequently overlook the value inherent in community itself and so enlarge the role of political society to the detriment of smaller communities, including businesses and families. And, presupposing some sort of consequentialism, they assume that the good end of rectifying past injustices justifies any politically feasible means that seems likely to be effective.

In my judgment, then, you should not embrace a voluntary affirmative action program, but should ask yourself two questions. Has the business, by its past policies of hiring and promotion, been responsible for any injustice you now can and should rectify? Is there any reason why you should change your present hiring and promotion policies more drastically than law requires so as to increase the proportion of women, blacks, and members of other minorities among your employees as a whole and also among those in better-paying positions?

You say that in the early days the family hired relatives and friends. Was that original hiring policy unjust? Perhaps, but I doubt it. In founding the enterprise, the family was creating new jobs, and these were made available to individuals to whom the family recognized duties of kinship and friendship. Those existing communities had their human value and offered a natural basis for developing an economic cooperation with good prospects of the camaraderie and mutual loyalty conducive to its success. The family’s members and most of those they employed probably belonged to the same religious and ethnic groups, whose parents may have been discriminated against—for example, Catholics frequently have been excluded from employment or denied equal opportunities for certain sorts of jobs.316

You also say that in the early days the family practiced a great deal of favoritism among employees. Favoritism is an injustice common in family businesses, where ties of kinship and friendship are allowed to distort the relationships proper to the enterprise. But that injustice did not affect hiring. It involved only such matters as wages and promotion, and probably it has been overcome by your long-standing policy of promoting strictly on the basis of job performance. Moreover, as the result of your nondiscriminatory hiring policy makes clear, the family’s favoritism, even at its worst, mainly worked to the disadvantage of some white males in comparison with others, rather than to the disadvantage of women, blacks, or members of other minorities in comparison with white males.

The hiring policy you put in place was to comply with relevant, presumably just laws in offering equal employment opportunities, and within that framework to hire strictly on the basis of an individual’s qualifications to do the job. Many employers, of course, purported to operate on such a policy, while in reality systematically discriminating against certain groups, such as blacks. But provided you not only stated but really adhered to that policy, I see no injustice in what you did (see CCC, 2433).

Hiring individuals on the basis of their qualifications undoubtedly furthered not only the common good of the business, for which you as manager are responsible, but the good of those hired. Less-qualified individuals whom you did not hire may well have suffered no disadvantage thereby. Perhaps they found other, more suitable employment; people generally find work for which they are well qualified more fulfilling and rewarding. However, even less-qualified individuals who would have been better off had you hired them did not suffer any injustice by your preferring better-qualified individuals; some preference was inevitable and yours was reasonable.

Someone is likely to object that the injustice of your past hiring policy is manifest from its result—more than two-thirds of your employees, including all but two of your service technicians, are white males. That argument is unsound. Undoubtedly, both historical and contemporary injustices are at least partly responsible for the difference between blacks and whites as groups in their qualification for various desirable jobs. But the business you manage neither caused those injustices nor benefited from them, and so you would have acted wrongly if you had voluntarily assumed the burden of remedying them at the expense of the business’s owners, customers, suppliers, and other employees. Somewhat similarly, both historical and contemporary social and cultural differences between female and male roles account at least partly for the difference between women and men as groups in their interest in and qualification for various jobs. However, not only is the business you manage not responsible for those differences in roles, but in many respects they result, not from any injustice, but from the natural and humanly good complementarity of men and women in marriage and family life—a complementarity that should be respected and safeguarded for the good of individuals themselves, their families, and society as a whole (see LCL, 387–88, 626–33).

Should you now change your existing hiring policy in ways not mandated by law in order to increase the proportion of women and minorities among your employees as a whole and among those in better-paying positions? Very likely you should, but not with the intention of rectifying injustices committed by others. Rather, the pressures you describe—from advocacy groups, institutional customers, bad publicity, and harassing lawsuits—are part of the socioeconomic environment affecting the capacity of every business to operate efficiently and perhaps to survive. Even if those pressures are unjust, you may not ignore them, but, while avoiding doing anything wrong in itself, must take them into account for the good of the business.

Plainly, in filling every job, you should try to attract and identify well-qualified applicants whose hiring would mitigate the pressures. It would be wrong in any case not to hire such an applicant when he or she is better qualified than any white male applicant. If you do not already advertise the basis on which service technicians are compensated, perhaps doing so would attract well-qualified applicants other than white males for those key positions. Often, of course, applicants’ qualifications are not entirely comparable. One is better qualified in some respects, another in others, and a choice must be made. In such cases, too, it will be reasonable for you to prefer those whose hiring will help solve your problem. Similarly, when a woman, a black, or a member of some other preferred minority is both available for advancement and more deserving, you will have no reason to promote anyone else; and when the claims of different employees for advancement are not comparable, you should take into account the business’s need to respond to pressures.

What if the preceding measures do not suffice? While you might reimburse moving expenses or the like to enable and encourage appropriate, qualified applicants to come to work for you, I do not think you should pay other employees more than white males for doing the same work. Violating the principle of equal pay for equal work would provoke justified resentment on the part of white males; and paying a premium to attract more than your share of well-qualified women and members of minority groups would pass on the difficulty you face to other employers. Similarly, promoting less-qualified employees would be unfair to those whose superior performance merits advancement, and probably also would be unfair to other groups involved in the business, not least your customers.

Therefore, insofar as the good of the business requires you to employ more members of the preferred groups, it seems to me you should hire such people, though less qualified than white male applicants, as trainees at somewhat reduced pay, then provide special training and supervision so that they will do their jobs satisfactorily and, if all goes well, eventually realize their full potential for the work.

Doing this, of course, you also should avoid dishonesty and unfairness. For example, misleading white males into applying for jobs for which they certainly will not be hired would be both dishonest and unfair; if you expect to hire few white males, your ads should make it clear that others will be strongly preferred. Misrepresenting your hiring policy to your present employees or to customers would be dishonest; you may not pretend to employ only the best-qualified people available if you no longer can do so. Resenting the less-qualified people you reluctantly hire and treating them unkindly would be unfair to them. Hiring less-qualified people but failing to train and supervise them so that they perform adequately would be unfair both to them and to others involved in the business, especially your customers, who would be inconvenienced and deprived of the quality of service they expect.

315. Some of the following arguments are supported and/or developed—though together with other arguments not entirely sound—in recent works: Terry Eastland, Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1996); Clint Bolick, The Affirmative Action Fraud: Can We Restore the American Civil Rights Vision? (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1996); Bob Zelnick, Backfire: A Reporter’s Look at Affirmative Action (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1996). The benefits of affirmative action to those preferred also is questionable; see, for example, Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 111–25.

316. See Andrew M. Greeley, An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1977), and the works he cites in chap. 2, n. 2 (117–18).