Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) is a concept which arose out of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against individuals based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy) and national origin. Non-discrimination rules are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and have been expanded to include prohibitions against discrimination based on age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which applies to companies with 20 or more employees), disability (Americans with Disabilities Act & Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act), genetics (Gentic Information Nondiscrimination Act) and pay (Equal Pay Act). Additionally, many states and municipalities have similar laws.

Regardless of whether or not your company regards itself as “nondiscriminatory”, the law requires you to be proactive in your equal treatment of applicants and employees. For example, it is a requirement that applicable employers post the “EEO is the Law” poster where both applicants and employees can see it.  Additionally, employers with 100 or more employees must file an EEO-1 Report each year by September 30.  This report includes demographic information (race and gender) about your employees in specific job categories.

It is highly recommended that employers include in their handbooks a policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace.  It is further recommended that employers conduct harassment training for all employees on an annual basis.

Most importantly, it is imperative that employers train their managers and supervisors about this law and how seemingly simple comments can be construed as discriminatory or harassing.  Managers and supervisors need to understand that it is not how they regard the statement or action that they made but how the employee or applicant feels about the statement or action that was made.

Recently, the EEOC and certain courts have clarified that sexual orientation be considered a protected status under sex discrimination. Additionally, many states and municipalities have adopted specific statutes and ordinances prohibiting employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bottom line is employment decisions (hiring, promotions, terminations, etc.) must be made on the basis of job-relatedness and not be made using criteria that could be considered biased.

The reason this topic is so important to your business is because defending EEO claims can be expensive. A company can easily spend $50,000 to settle a simple EEOC charge out of court. The headlines for the most recent cases EEOC is touting on its website include:

Hearn-Kirkwood Will Pay $63,500 to Resolve EEOC Pay Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit

Hillshire Brands Company Pays $4 Million to Settle Race Discrimination Suit

Signal International, LLC to Pay $5 Million to Settle EEOC Race, National Origin Lawsuit

Tepro, Inc. To Pay $600,000 to Settle EEOC Age Discrimination Suit

These are only a few examples of the settlements collected by the EEOC.  Most businesses can’t afford to take that type of hit.  And even though the examples cited appear to be larger companies, the settlement amounts for smaller companies can be equally as high depending on the circumstances.

It is highly recommended that employers develop comprehensive policies regarding discrimination and harassment that are distributed to all employees.  These policies should include:

  • A statement that the company does not discriminate against employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation/gender identity, genetic information, age or disability.
  • With information about how to submit a complaint if they believe they are being discriminated against or harassed.  Two or three members of management should be identified as those to whom the employee should bring their complaint. This way, if the supervisor or manager is the person allegedly engaging in the discriminatory or harassing behavior, the employee has another member of management to whom they can bring their grievance.
  • The member of management responsible for conducting a prompt investigation.
  • A statement prohibiting retaliation against the individual complaining and against any witnesses who provide information during an investigation.
  • A statement that confidentiality will be maintained as best as possible but that it can’t be guaranteed.

The concept of Equal Employment Opportunity is one of inclusion…that all individuals have the right to work or be considered for work regardless of any characteristic other than their job-related skills.

Contributed by Christine Crews, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is Vice President of Human Resource Services for the Employers Association Forum, Inc. (EAF). EAF is a non-profit corporate membership-based association dedicated to serving the business and HR communities with world-class HR tools, hotlines & legal compliance, news & trends, surveys & economic data, benefits & insurance, risk management, training & consulting, and leadership & organizational development. HCCMO members receive discounted rates on all EAF classroom training at EAF’s training center in Longwood. Click here to learn more about EAF membership benefits