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What comes to mind when you think about Affirmative Action?

Do you know why Affirmative Action Programs were created?

I didn’t want to write this piece for fear of offending, discomforting, or angering many people. Words like Woke, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Affirmative Action engender strong, usually negative, emotions. I was considered an Affirmative Action hire by some. No one wants that label. It implies that the person hired is less qualified than other applicants at best or not qualified at all, especially in leadership.

Despite my education and work experience, I was considered by some to be an Affirmative Action hire. I earned three degrees while the person I subsequently replaced, had one. My then-boss did a lot of traveling as a consultant, so I functioned as the department head for weeks at a time, gaining valuable leadership experience. I don’t know the backgrounds of other applicants, but I was a solid contender. I was in the second group of on-site applicants. All the applicants in the first group were turned down. The hiring officer, my future boss, told me that if I didn’t pass muster, he would bring in another set of applicants.

I learned later that he didn’t think I was a viable candidate. He considered meeting with me over dinner as a courtesy. In the middle of that dinner, I realized this was the only time the hiring officer and I were going to meet. He was leaving town the next day, so I shifted gears. He noticed that I went into interview mode. He was so impressed that he offered me the position three days later.

Before my arrival, one of my direct reports allegedly quit rather than work with me, two were openly hostile and two were willing to give me a chance. The two who were willing to give me a chance were concerned that I wouldn’t be invited to the off-site poker game where deals and “real” decisions are made. As a result, our department could be disadvantaged, and I could be undermined. Fortunately, neither of those concerns materialized.

I am so grateful for those who gave me a chance and supported me. I am extremely grateful for those who stood up for me when I wasn’t in “the room”. Thanks to them we were successful as an organization. As persons of color, we know that the margin for error is narrow and if mistakes are made, we are given little grace.

The person who hired me took a position at another institution. When he came back to visit, I asked him if he hired me to fill a quota. He responded with a resounding no. He went on to say, “I’m surprised you are still here. I thought you would be Vice President somewhere else by now.” With that response, the ghost of Affirmative Action was exercised. The take-home message: Give people a chance. Talent comes in various forms. I wonder if I would be given a chance in the current workplace environment.

What will you do to make your workplace better?