Much has been made of affirmative action over the past two years, let alone the past several decades. Still, the concepts of affirmative action and affirmative action compliance have long been embattled and misinterpreted since the passing of the Civil Rights Act. This is due, in large part, to there being two different types of affirmative action: preventive affirmative action and corrective affirmative action.

What many people do not understand is that affirmative action is meant to benefit everyone. However, of the two types, corrective affirmative action is what businesses should strive to avoid. This type of action is usually introduced only when harmful practices such as illegal discrimination are present in an organization and need to be corrected. Preventive affirmative action, on the other hand, introduces compliance requirements that prevent harm in the first place. When you focus on preventive action through awareness and training efforts, corrective action is not necessary.

While this distinction seems simple, it’s easy to get wrong. Clearing up misconceptions starts with the way we talk about affirmative action. By opening up discussions on affirmative action in the appropriate context, we will be able to overcome the hurdles when striving for affirmative action program success.

Why It’s Important to Change Affirmative Action Language

The way we discuss affirmative action programs can effectively make or break a program’s success. That’s why, over the past 30 years or so, affirmative action has often been given a bad rap due to certain myths clouding the discussion. Because of existing rhetoric, employees may believe that affirmative action programs are meant to fulfill quotas or take something from one group and give it to another. Not only do these reactive types of policies leave people feeling disadvantaged, but they are also illegal and they defeat the purpose of affirmative action as a whole.

The confusion surrounding affirmative action has persisted for about 30 years and has hampered support for programs meant to benefit the public as a whole. While the majority of Americans support affirmative action programs for minorities and women at some level, they do not support what they falsely believe are set-asides, quotas and “reverse discrimination.” In other words, they support the goals of affirmative action (fairness for all) but not in a way that violates procedural justice.

Federal non-discrimination laws have existed for over 50 years, though many American workplaces are still struggling with the basics of equal opportunity employment and reeling from gender and race-based injustice. In order to support the work, it is imperative that we change the language we use to talk about affirmative action. Right now, people still refer to affirmative action programs as being “for” women and people of color. In reality, affirmative action is for everyone. Changing people’s minds about the very purpose of affirmative action through awareness and training will not only meet compliance requirements but create a better U.S. workforce.

How to Change the Language Surrounding Affirmative Action

As the past several years have made very clear, the way that affirmative action has been framed is not working. One thing everyone understands, however, is that words matter. It’s time to discuss affirmative action in a way that is indicative of its true purpose: To create and further an equitable workplace for everyone.

When training employees on what affirmative action is — and what it isn’t — follow these best practices.

  1. Distinguish between preventive and corrective action.

It’s easy for anyone new or unfamiliar with the idea of affirmative action to assume that it’s a term with one meaning. While the term has an equity-based goal, affirmative action can be applied in two different ways. Companies should always defer to preventive action first so that corrective action is not needed. Making this important distinction while discussing affirmative action allows affirmative action programs to build credibility from the beginning.

  1. Emphasize that affirmative action programs are designed to help companies avoid corrective action.

Another way we can change our discussions around affirmative action is to position affirmative action as a positive step in avoiding corrective action. In this context, corrective action should be considered a last resort for companies trying to foster fairness in the workplace. Align affirmative action with the idea of preventive action to ensure everyone that affirmative action will keep companies moving in the right direction, not hinder employee fulfillment and well-being.

  1. Recognize that corrective affirmative action is never a “good” thing.

When companies need corrective affirmative action, that usually means they engaged in discriminatory or harmful employment practices that need to be addressed and remediated as soon as possible. No business wants to be in this position because it means that it must correct discrimination that has harmed people. This may even require businesses to focus on numbers, such as specific headcounts, to restore imbalances instead of focusing on ways to involve everyone in the process.

Even though federal non-discrimination laws have been in place for decades, people still grapple with the idea of affirmative action. This is primarily due to misconceptions surrounding what, in reality, is meant to support fairness for all. By altering the way we discuss affirmative action through training and awareness efforts, we can take a huge step forward to a more inclusive and collaborative workplace that truly brings people together toward a common goal.