What is positive discrimination?


Swinging too far in the opposite direction can be detrimental to your team and your bottom line.

There is a perception among many that companies are already positively discriminating, with women and minority group candidates being preferenced for roles. Skeptics attack this as political correctness gone mad, activists praise it as long-overdue progress. However, what really is positive discrimination and where should you draw a line?

How to define positive discrimination

Let’s dive right in: positive discrimination in the workforce is the act of favouring someone based on a "protected characteristic".

This could be:

  • Hiring someone with a disability in order to fulfil a quota
  • Promoting a specific number of people, simply because they share a protected characteristic

It gained prevalence as an idea in post-apartheid South Africa, formally known as Black Economic Empowerment, as a way of re-introducing Black South-African’s into a job market that they had been totally excluded from. To this day the impact of positive discrimination in South Africa is hotly debated.

Protected characteristics

You might ask, what does 'favouring someone based on a protected characteristic' mean? 

To make sure that there’s no confusion, the Australian government have a several pieces of legislation clearly stating that discrimination is not legal. 

Discrimination against these characteristics are specifically pointed out on the government website:

  • age
  • disability
  • race
  • sex
  • intersex status
  • gender identity
  • sexual orientation

Protected characteristics apply to everyone. The point is here is that no matter who you are, these aspects of your person cannot be considered when making a decision such as hiring.

Most people are clued up on why protected characteristics should not be discriminated against. But what happens when you favour someone because of their protected characteristics?

Positive discrimination examples?

Let’s set out a few scenarios to demonstrate what positive discrimination might look like:

  1. Two people are being interviewed for a position – one has a protected characteristic which you have a quota to fill (e.g. is a person of colour, and you need to employ more people from non-white backgrounds) but is far less qualified than the other. You hire the person with a protected characteristic, even though they are not suitable for the job.
  2. You run a women’s shelter and only hire female staff.
  3. Your profession has very few women, so you run an open day for women to raise awareness about the industry.

Only the first example is actually a case of positive discrimination. Here’s why:

The second example would be exempt as it falls under "genuine occupational qualification". Another example could be religious schools.

The third example is not positive discrimination. It’s actually a case of what is known as positive action. So, next question, what’s positive action?

Differences between positive action and positive discrimination

Positive action is a way of changing society for the better, by making it more equal. Employers can actively encourage people with protected characteristics to apply to their company. 

Positive action is different from positive discrimination in that it doesn’t negatively impact other groups. In the nice example of a women’s open day, above, no other group is adversely affected by the open day.

Another example of positive action might be, advertising a job in a magazine with a largely LGBT+ readership, while also advertising a mainstream channel.

Positive discrimination in the news

As you can see from the above examples, you need to be able to discern between positive action and positive discrimination. Even big companies don’t always get it right – the BBC was accused of positive discrimination when an internal email was leaked in 2016.

The damning document stated that The One Show was only looking to hire men from non-white backgrounds, over the age of thirty. If that email was a job advert, it would be a clear-cut case of positive discrimination.

How to challenge discrimination in a way that encourages positive change

Discrimination, positive or negative, shouldn’t be hard to combat, but having a diverse workforce doesn’t happen overnight.

It all comes down to who you hire. If you aren’t attracting candidates from a wide range of backgrounds, your office will always look the same. But before you start herding up different groups and setting patronising quotas, you need to have a hard look at your application process.

Are you, for example, accidentally promoting a ‘bloke-y’ drinking culture that’s alienating certain candidates? 

Is your application process fair – do you suddenly lose more than 30% of your female applicants at one stage? Do your assessments only work on the latest device? Do you only accept gold-plated CVs?

Further reading

If you'd like to become more acquainted with discrimination, positive action, and positive discrimination, the Human Rights Commission have a quick guide you can download and read. 

The quickest, and easiest, way to overcome all forms of discrimination is through education and critical thinking. If you haven't thought about where you might have an unconscious bias or hurdle for minorities in your hiring or promoting processes, take this as a gentle push to do a little independent reading and have a look at how your organisation might be disadvantaging some of the best talent.