And true organizational change does not come exclusively from even strongly expressed preferences of CEOs, although that is certainly important. Modern hiring decisions and processes are complex, involving nuanced decisions made by multiple people. Even among the most well-meaning hiring managers, stigma and bias enter the equation. The lessons from integrating women, minorities and people with disabilities into the workplace are that there will always be a “neutral” or “legitimate” reason to not hire someone from a traditionally disfavored group.
Changing this requires changing culture, which takes time and commitment. And law provides the necessary accountability and the consequences for noncompliance. In six months, the public will not remember which companies committed to exactly what regarding the long-term unemployed. But if these companies know there are legal ramifications, even modest ones, to blatant discrimination against these job seekers, it helps them stay accountable. Law cannot work alone, but it needs to be part of the picture.
Obama was right to bring attention to this important issue, and his strategy of persuading CEOs to support his efforts is crucial. But true change will require investments in related programs and the support that law can bring. Having a permanent lost generation of workers is in no one’s interest, so it is important we see this effort through.
Michael Waterstone is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where his courses focus on employment law and disability rights law.