What is Adverse Impact in HR?

Adverse impact, also known as disparate impact, is a fundamental concept within human resource management, pivotal to fostering a diverse workforce and ensuring fair employment practices. This concept describes a situation where employment practices, such as hiring, layoffs, or performance appraisals, unintentionally disadvantage a specific protected group—such as a particular gender, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual orientation—compared to other groups.

Understanding Adverse Impact in the Hiring Process

Adverse impact typically occurs during the selection process for hiring or promotions when a seemingly neutral employment policy or practice disproportionately affects members of a protected class.

For instance, if a job requirement or pre-employment test is not essential for job performance but leads to a substantially different rate of selection between groups, it may indicate adverse impact.

Regulatory Framework and the EEOC

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforces laws against workplace discrimination.

The EEOC pays particular attention to adverse impact, requiring organizations to comply with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

These guidelines include the four-fifths rule (or 5ths rule), a benchmark suggesting adverse impact if the hiring rate for a minority group is less than 80% (or four-fifths) of the rate for the group with the highest selection rate.

Metrics and Analysis

Adverse impact analysis involves statistical examinations to detect significant disparities in employment practices. HR professionals use metrics like the impact ratio and the group’s selection rate to measure and compare the effects of these practices across different demographic groups.

Examples of Adverse Impact

A common example of adverse impact is found in pre-employment assessments that disproportionately screen out job candidates from particular ethnic or racial backgrounds, despite their qualifications. Other examples include recruitment processes that rely heavily on referrals, which can perpetuate a non-diverse workplace if current employees predominantly belong to similar demographic groups.

Supreme Court Involvement

The concept was notably recognized in the landmark Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power, which emphasized that employment practices must be directly job-related and consistent with business necessity, especially when they negatively affect minority groups.

Addressing and Mitigating Adverse Impact

To mitigate adverse impact, organizations are advised to regularly review and adjust their hiring practices, ensuring that all selection criteria and job descriptions are essential and relevant to the duties involved. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, alongside training programs on unconscious bias, are crucial in promoting fair treatment and reducing discriminatory practices within the workplace.


Adverse impact poses significant challenges in talent acquisition and retention, urging HR professionals to be vigilant and proactive in their approach to human resource management.

Adhering to federal employment laws and continuously refining employment practices can better support a fair, equitable, and inclusive work environment. This effort not only aligns with legal and ethical standards but also enhances the overall effectiveness and competitiveness of the business.

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