Federal law bars employers from discriminating against potential or current employees on factors such as gender, race and age.
- Equal employment opportunity (EEO) compliance means not discriminating against employees and job applicants based on protected factors.
- The EEO laws businesses must follow at all times depend on their size.
- To maintain your company's EEO compliance, identify and correct your biases, provide accessibility accommodations, determine your business's reporting requirements, and consider enacting an affirmative action plan.
- This guide is for business owners who want to learn more about EEO and ensure their compliance.
It's common knowledge that job discrimination is pervasive across most, if not all, industries. Less obvious is how companies must hire, promote, discipline, pay and treat employees in order to comply with equal opportunity laws. Through federal and state equal employment opportunity standards, your company can find guidance for interacting with employees and job applicants not on the basis of their demographics, but solely on the basis of their work and skills.
What is equal employment opportunity (EEO)?
Equal employment opportunity is a government-mandated set of civil rights protections against job discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information and other factors. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs anti-discrimination measures for the first five of these protected classes. A federal agency called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ensures that employers comply with Title VII and all EEO laws. There are also state EEO laws that some employers must abide by, depending on where they are located.
As an employer, you should note that certain EEO requirements often imply other requirements. For example, EEO compliance means no discrimination based on a person's sex, but EEO law technically does not name sexual orientation as a protected class, and it says nothing about people who are not cisgender. However, a recent Supreme Court ruling has extended EEO laws to protect all sexual orientations and gender identities.
These protections apply in a number of employment and workplace-related areas. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, these laws apply to recruiting, job interviews, background checks, hiring, compensation and benefits, working conditions, disciplinary actions (including terminations), promotions, and leave management.
Key takeaway: EEO laws bar employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on several demographic bases.
What does it mean to be EEO compliant?
At its most fundamental, EEO compliance means treating all people equally when it comes to hiring, promotions, compensation, layoffs, benefits, disciplinary actions and other employment practices. As EEO laws go, compliance will mean different things for different businesses:
- For employers with 14 employees or fewer, EEO compliance requires paying employees of all gender identities equally for equal work – in other words, the remainder of EEO provisions do not apply.
- For employers with 15 to 19 employees, EEO compliance expands to include all protected classes except for age in all employment and hiring practices.
- For employers with 20 or more employees, EEO requirements expand to ban age discrimination against people at least 40 years old.
Any EEO laws that apply to your company apply at all times. Your state may have additional rules depending on your company size.
You must consider not just your employees when ensuring EEO compliance but their families too. Just as EEO laws prevent you from discriminating against your employees on several demographic bases, EEO compliance entails not discriminating against your employees based on their partners' or children's race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, disability, age or genetic information.
EEO compliance also extends to sexual harassment because, under Title VII, the federal government classifies sexual harassment as sex discrimination. Title VII also states that victims of sexual harassment can include anyone offended by the perpetrator's behavior, not just the person at whom the behavior was targeted.
Sex discrimination is arguably the most expansive civil rights protection that EEO laws cover. Title VII also bans discrimination against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. This means that if you find out that any of your employees or job applicants is a victim of these crimes, you cannot incorporate this knowledge into business and HR decisions. You also cannot treat two victims of the same crime differently except on the basis of their work and skills.
Key takeaway: EEO compliance laws vary by business size, apply at all times, extend to job applicants' and employees' families, and ban sexual harassment.
How to maintain EEO compliance
On one hand, if you just stick to common sense and standard fairness in your employment and business practices, you should have no trouble maintaining EEO compliance. That said, basic decency is only the start. You should also take the following steps.
1. Address your biases.
Some employment biases are so widespread they're all but common knowledge now. For equal work, employers tend to unjustifiably pay women less than men, Black people less than white people and Hispanic people less than white people. Other biases may be harder to grapple.
One example is implementing a dress code or time-off policy that doesn't fairly accommodate your employees' religious traditions. Another could be not instituting policies that address how to respond to allegations of discrimination – failure to respond implies the bias of not thinking discrimination is a serious workplace issue.
2. Provide accessibility accommodations.
For example, if your workplace requires stairs for access and you encounter job applicants with mobility-related disabilities, you must treat these applicants exactly as you would treat other applicants. To assume that all people with disabilities will not be able to use the stairs leading to your office is disability discrimination. You may even want to go a step further and install ramps or other accessibility structures.
You should also note that disabilities include far more than mobility issues. The exact ADA definition of a disability is a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Under this definition, impaired senses, autism spectrum disorders and many more conditions qualify as disabilities.
3. Create an affirmative action program.
While most employers are not required to create affirmative action programs, you may want to draft one anyway. That's because an affirmative action plan outlines the steps your company will take to proactively recruit employees from groups that aren't the dominant ones – namely, employees who aren't cisgender, straight, white and/or male.
If you choose to enact an affirmative action program, you should include statistical goals. For example, you may decide that a certain percentage of your workforce should include employees from nondominant groups. Any thresholds you set that don't violate the discrimination protections of Title VII are legally sound.
While most employers aren't legally required to create affirmative action plans, certain federal contractors must do so. If your company has federal contracts, there is a government guide that spells out your obligations. Additionally, employers and contractors with at least $10,000 in federal contracts may need to ensure EEO compliance even if they aren't required to institute affirmative action programs.
4. Post required notices.
Title VII, the ADA and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act all require employers to post workplace notices explaining the rights these laws give employees. You should post these notices in high-traffic areas of your workplace to avoid EEO violation penalties. If an employee brings a complaint to the EEOC and you haven't posted notices in appropriate areas, you could be fined even if the EEOC finds no other wrongdoing on your part.
5. File EEO reports.
If your company has 100 or more employees, you must file an EEO-1 form every year. So must federal contractors with at least 50 employees and $50,000 in contracts.
The EEO-1 form details the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of each sector of an employer's workforce. In other words, it puts hard numbers to your nondiscrimination practices. That's why, even if you're not required to file an EEO-1 form, completing one may help you assess your EEO compliance.
Let's say you discover that, at your 22-person company, 18 employees are white men. Chances are you already knew this, but until now, maybe you never thought about it. That's exactly the point of EEO law – it forces employers to step outside their implicit employment biases.
Key takeaway: To maintain your company's EEO compliance, address your biases, provide accessibility accommodations, create an affirmative action plan, and acquaint yourself with the EEO-1 form.
What are the penalties for violating EEO laws?
If your company fails to comply with EEO laws, the EEOC may require you to pay a penalty. The fines for these penalties have risen sharply over the past two decades: In 1997, the EEOC increased the penalty for each EEO violation from $100 to $110. As of July 2016, that number is now $525 per EEO violation.
When the EEOC instituted this change, a spokesperson noted that the penalty increase did not reflect an increase in violations. Most EEO violations, it turns out, originate from employers not posting the required notices. If you post these notices in prominent, accessible locations in your workplace while making sure not to discriminate in your hiring and employment practices, you're well on your way to consistent, continuous EEO compliance.
Key takeaway: If your company violates EEO law, you could be fined $525 per violation.