The old personnel office, traditionally a backwater of payroll clerks, has been transformed into a power center--hardly surprising in the era of "under-utilization," the "eight-factor analysis," and other refinements of equal opportunity law.

As Thomas N. Bowdle, a stolid, white, former FBI agent turned director of equal opportunity affairs for the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp., observes: "The development of affirmative action has done more to force companies to focus on how they manage their workforces than anything that's been done."

For the first time on a wide scale, the policy has forced bosses to explain why they fire one person or promote another, noted John Blodger, a black employe relations executive with the Bendix Corp. and an officer of the American Association of Personnel Administrators.

Virtually every major company and institution these days has its "EEO operatives." Ideally, their equal employment opportunity mission is to integrate fairness into routine management procedures. But in practice, their success is more often defined as keeping employers out of trouble with the feds and the courts, guiding them through the maze of rules that can shape key decisions and that might cost them big bucks.

This vast legal machinery also nourishes a support industry of lawyers, data services, statisticians, placement services and others. They speak their own jargon, practice their own insider gamesmanship.

And, they wrestle with questions like:

An outside study at a Fortune 500 corporation showed women were less likely than men to have sought and accepted promotion. Will the government hold the company responsible for cultural conditioning that suppressed the aspirations of its female employes and force it to take action?

An American Indian in Albuquerque wants an Internal Revenue Service job and files suit on grounds he has been unjustly excluded by quotas based on race. In light of a federal decision giving preference in job exams to blacks and Hispanics, what position will officials take on an Indian applicant?

You are a university admissions officer with one student slot. Your choice is between the son of a black Park Avenue Ph.D. and the son of a white Appalachian coal miner who never got past third grade. Their test scores are equal. In the spirit of affirmative action, whom do you admit?

Some of these briefcase Solomons maintain that confronting difficult choices is what much of modern management is all about anyway.

However, in such a diverse and creative society, the manifestations can prove quirky:

There was the "white male" denied promotion who went to court to acquire a Hispanic surname so he would be eligible for special preferences.

There are black workers suing city governments with black mayors and a majority black population.

There is the possibility that regulations protecting Asian Americans against discrimination at the hands of a white economic establishment now may hit Japanese employers opening plants in this country (a question to be decided by the Supreme Court).

There is the white woman manager who says she bitterly resents being told she "has to hire a black for the next vacancy," but then remembers how she got her own position as the boss of six men.

There are women who won't work for women, blacks who won't hire blacks, husbands fighting mixed emotions about the special advantages they see going to their professional wives, and a human Rubik's cube of other variations.

If protections against age discrimination are thrown in, it seems, fair employment laws embrace virtually everybody except able-bodied young white males. "If you fall off a bar stool and break your leg, or if you grow old, you're in," Bowdle said.

Their jargon deals in the expanding definitions of discrimination, which emphasize "effects" as well as intent, and "institutional" as well as personal forces.

A critical sticking point here, as in the tug-of-war over the Voting Rights Act, is an apparent reliance on "proportional representation," the notion that in a just society, each race, gender and ethnic group will somehow be represented in proportion to its numbers in every occupational, educational or other setting.

For instance, when it was found that 1.3 percent of the chemical engineers residing in Orange, Tex., were either women or minorities, federal enforcers then required the synthetic rubber plant there to analyze its workforce. Because the plant did not have that same percentage of women and minority chemical engineers, the employer was required to "declare under-utilization," and take action to achieve that proportion.

How does an employer find the percentage of black chemical engineers available in Orange, Tex., or the proportion of female auditors available in Chicago, for instance? Enter the eight-factor analysis. Affirmative action in such cases would have employers divide their workforces into job categories and do a "utilization analysis" based on such things as the percentage of minorities and women who hold a certain degree relative to their need.

There are seminars and pamphlets and audiovisual films. There are incantations--likely to put a righteous fear into managers--of cases such as AT&T's comeuppance to the tune of $15 million in back pay and $50 million in promotional pay and wage adjustments.

Major corporations have pooled their resources to develop their own EEO data banks. Placement experts track various shapes and colors of job candidates.

Bill Marumoto, a headhunter based in Georgetown and a former Nixon official, has a notebook identifying, for example, some 2,000 marketing employes in the New York-New Jersey area broken down by "EEO code." When a deodorant manufacturer wanted a black candidate for a job as product manager, Marumoto knew where to find him.

In the political "High Noon" brewing over affirmative action, the establishment specialists who work the territory may be the heaviest guns on the side of civil rights groups.

"The Fortune 500 don't want affirmative action killed, just made reasonable," said one civil rights lawyer. "They've learned to live with it. Anyway, some of these executives have built little fiefdoms around it. The personnel office was never so powerful before."

While much attention has focused on the employers' gripes about government contrariness, an increasing number have experienced a rite of passage, specialists say.

After a period of resistance, they went through the initial shock of seeing a woman or black in a staff meeting, and finally began to see some pluses--such as opening up for themselves new pools of previously wasted talent which, in a highly competitive market, can cut costs and increase productivity.

"We like to think of it practically," said Kaiser executive Howard Nelson. "To use a sports analogy, there are some southern schools that wouldn't be playing the kind of ball they are today if they had continued to keep out black players."

At AT&T, it was only after they felt the "spur" of affirmative action that telephone company executives realized "the more efficient and equitable personnel selection and assessment system adopted by AT&T (and its affiliates) puts the telephone company in a much stronger position to compete with other firms . . . ," Dr. Bernard Anderson, a Rockefeller Foundation economist, told a House subcommittee.

Increasing the labor pool can mean less-costly labor. The law sometimes allows an employer to do something he wanted to do anyway, hire women and blacks and blame it on the government, some managers say. The tighter labor market of the future may make this course even more attractive, some specialists believe.

Borne along on an anti-regulation, anti-big-government tide, Reagan officials landed on this treacherous ground at a run, proposing changes in the enforcement machinery, reducing staff and budgets. But now they are squabbling among themselves over how to procede, their policy signals have been muddled and they have pleased none of the sides. Others, such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), have found it wise to tone down their attacks on the issue in an election year.

Most all concerned agree that, for most of its history, the federal enforcement bureaucracy has been chaotic, fragmented, its personnel often poorly trained or overly zealous. It was only late in the Carter administration that there was enough law on the books and federal rationality to make the program credible. "Before that, we had no program," said Day Piercy of Women Employed.

Affirmative action rules for private sector employers now are enforced mostly by the Labor Department's obscure Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the OPM, and the Justice Department also play roles in the public and/or private sector.

All of this machinery spins around human judgments about who can do a job. The great myth among the "unwashed" is that businessmen used to have some scientific, well-thought-out system for judging qualifications and performance, said Kaiser's Bowdle.

To illustrate, he tells a few stories about white guys who didn't get hired because they didn't go to the right school, wore a funny looking suit or had a southern instead of northern accent.

"The white male who succeeds has had somebody in their career do something for them that fits exactly the description of affirmative action and that doesn't take anything away from anybody."

While white women have numerous hurdles to overcome, ranging from sexual harassment to ingrained notions of their "proper place," specialists say, it is nevertheless easier to integrate white women than blacks, particularly in the higher white-collar echelons. They cite a variety of reasons from sheer numbers to cultural background.

"A white woman will have the same father as the white male," summed up Kaiser Vice President Nelson.

Many EEO specialists are themselves white women or minorities. Some grumble that it's a no-win job, often lacking real influence, with a hostile management on one hand, dissatisfied employes on the other, and under siege by government enforcers and civil rights groups which, they say, don't even understand how business operates.

Between 1972 and 1979, the number of personnel and labor relations specialists increased from 310,000 to 413,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The proportion of women in that category rose from 31 to 45.5 percent and minorities rose from 9 to 10.2 percent.

The moral and philosophical arguments over affirmative action, which have flamed up brighter than ever under the Reagan administration, often seem strangely unrelated to practical reality.

At the political extremes, one side claims not to care how well affirmative action tactics work. They believe its use of quotas and preferential treatment is unjust, unconstitutional and un-American.

The other side claims not to care that affirmative action is politically unpopular. They believe the government has a duty to enforce it because it is right, like taxation.

Black conservative economist Thomas Sowell has drawn considerable blood in combat with civil rights forces with his brassy, well-researched assaults on this and other government programs, which he says are only quick fixes that serve in the long run to "undermine self-reliance and pride of achievement" among blacks.

Black leaders, an elite out of touch with their own constituency, he says, have focused the debate on past wrongs, rather than present results.

Sowell also ridicules the theory that statistical representation of a group can be used to measure discrimination, calling it "the noble lie of our time."

His adversaries counter that Sowell, having benefited from government-driven change himself, now selfishly discounts its importance to others. His emphasis on the importance of hard work and education for blacks, they argue, grossly underestimates the monstrous drag of race.

However, even within the ranks of the civil rights community there is disagreement about who the program is supposed to help, tension over who it has helped.

Civil rights attorney Morris Abram and others argue that it ought to have focused on lifting the most disadvantaged.

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, head of the EEOC under Carter, says the "poverty program concept of affirmative action" is wrong.

"Affirmative action is a legal remedy to overcome specific exclusion of specific groups, not something that gives people a little boost up . . . . This is not a gratuity. This is not a benefit," she says.

" This is a legal remedy for a legal wrong. It must be understood that way or else we don't understand it at all."

Each group lumped under the catch-phrase of "women and minorities" has a very different history, culture and struggle.

Leaders of the fragile coalition, made even more tenuous by the pressures of hard times and unequal progress, are at some pains to downplay the deepening conflicts within their ranks.

Blacks, who speak bitterly of the gains made by white women in a program originally conceived for them, also face competition from growing numbers of illegal aliens, most of them constituents of Hispanic interest groups.

The administration, having alienated blacks, is still reportedly trying to attract Hispanic voters into the Republican fold, appealing to their strong Catholic and family values, supporting some programs aimed at them.

Asian Americans, a relatively tiny group, remain "protected" even though they have earnings higher than the national average.

Liberal Jewish groups already havesplit from other factions because of their adamant opposition to quotas, which victimized them in the past. And labor groups are opposing the attacks on the seniority system by white women and minorities.

Will the affirmative action effort die of complications? Does America want to give up the experiment?

Clearly many Americans--including some intended beneficiaries--feel they've been conned by doublespeak on affirmative action. Some feel misled about its promise, others about its proper bounds.

They've been told that quotas are not quotas but flexible "goals," when plainly in many cases the distinction is meaningless. Some courts have not hesitated to call them by that name.

They've been told that the plan is not to carve each workforce into the ethnic and racial mold of the larger society, even though the "effects test" clearly has become the standard for spotting discrimination.

They've been told that it is unfair to call this "reverse discrimination" unless blacks, for instance, could somehow systematically oppress whites for a century or two. Affirmative action is an attempt to dismantle, not to engage in, such a process. It is "color-conscious" only in order to create the equilibrium of the ideal color-blind (and sex-neutral) society, its defenders say.

"Although particular affirmative action plans may adversely affect particular white men as individuals, they do not unfairly burden white men as a group," the U.S. Civil Rights Commission explains.

But many white men use unprintable words to describe their feelings about that distinction.

Opinion polls have regularly reported that Americans--white, black, female, whatever--are overwhelmingly opposed to quotas. But, clearly, when treated to a certain body of facts, reasonable people have been persuaded that, sometimes, quotas are justified.

At the least, then, the times seem to demand a little honest talk, a more straight-arrow selling job than the public has been given. Because, despite their aversion to some of the tactics used so far, Americans are also expressing to the pollsters an increasing tolerance of human differences and a significant desire, for whatever motives, to offer a fair chance to everybody.

People seem open to the notion that some sort of positive action, judiciously applied to fit varying situations and sometimes even including quotas, is in the best interests of the society.

"There are lots of idealogues off on a binge right now," said William Taylor of Catholic University, a veteran civil rights activist. "The practical consequences are not all that apparent yet.

"The vested interest in the established peace and good order may assist us. Businesses and others may be unsettled by the prospect of social conflict and chaos. That's sort of a negative optimistic outlook."

Perhaps workers like Kaiser Aluminum's Yahya Muhammed have the clearest view of how things work. "I think it's gonna be better for my kids," said the black New Orleans plant worker, frustrated so far by the illusory promises of affirmative action. "But not because of the system. It's because I'm going to make it better, one way or another."