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September 27, 2020
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Teachable moments – Preferences

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
August 7, 2020

This week’s article focuses on preferences to include concepts of set asides, goals and quotas. Preferences can be controversial regardless of the program they apply to. That’s understandable. If you are in competition for a job or a contract, it feels unfair that someone else got an edge based on some factor. Yet it seems the push back on the concept of giving preferences increases when that factor is based on race, gender, or other diversity factors. The thing to understand about any preference given, it is on top of otherwise being fully qualified for the position or contract.

Preferences are the act, fact, or principle of giving advantages to some over others. Let’s start with some examples of less controversial preference programs. In 1953, Congress passed the Small Business Act. It stated that small businesses should receive a “fair proportion” of federal contracts. Establishing the Small Business Administration (SBA), the goal was that these businesses should have the “maximum practical opportunity” to participate in federal contracting. Most folks accept the premise that this type of preference is necessary because they realize that small businesses don’t have the resources to consistently compete for contracts against large corporations.

A 23 percent governmentwide goal was set, called set asides, for award of contracts to small businesses. Subsets were also established to include 5 percent goals for disadvantage businesses (SDBs) and women-owned small businesses (WOSB). A 3 percent goal was set for disabled veteran-owned businesses. Another employment preference is the Veteran’s Preference in federal hiring. The federal government also uses the AbilityOne Program for procurements. It gives preference in purchasing products or services to folks who are blind or disabled. This in turn provides them expanded job opportunities to become independent.

So, a set aside, is a program requiring a percentage of opportunities such as jobs or funding that is reserved for an underrepresented group. Scholarships and grants are often set aside for certain categories of folks. Examples are children of alumni, children of deceased or disabled veterans, certain heritages such as of Italian or Jewish descent. In Affirmative Action, the terms goals and quotas come into play as well as set asides. Let’s look at them too.

A goal is a target established toward which effort is directed. Whereas a quota is a fixed number or percentage. So, for example, an organization might set a goal for recruitment of a certain percentage of minority members or women needed to meet the requirements of their affirmative action effort. For example, back in the 80s the Coast Guard set a goal of 6 percent blacks for incoming Academy classes. It was based on the percentages of blacks entering colleges and universities at the time, even though the black population was higher at 11 percent. They seldom reached that goal, primarily because all the services and many employers were also attempting to diversify their work forces too. The competition was tough.

Quotas were rare and legally could only be used for affirmative action in cases of past, proven discrimination. For example, promotions. When discrimination was found in a department or agency based on policies or procedures, federal judges put quotas in place as an affirmative action to remedy the discrimination. A police example – for every three promotions to sergeant, one must be either a minority or woman. The judge might also impose a time limit or percentage goal with their decision. Thus, when the time limit expires or the goal is met, the quota is no longer required.

Is a preference unfair? Not really. They’ve always existed. As an employer, I have preferences. I may want high school graduates, employees without felony convictions, a good credit history. I may have a preference to hire someone who lives within a certain distance. I may desire to promote from within existing employees instead of outside my organization. Using diversity factors is just one type of preference. Just like discrimination, it can’t be the sole factor. It’s a plus one. It’s not discriminatory to use that factor as one of many factors such as education, qualifications, experience, etcetera. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights for Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.