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What Employers Should Know About EEO, Affirmative Action, and DE&I

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When developing policies to create a diverse, equitable workplace, it’s important to understand the similarities and differences among three key terms – Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), affirmative action, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Here’s how these concepts can work together to help you attract and retain top talent. 

As an HR professional, you’re undoubtedly familiar with these terms, but how well do you understand their differences and similarities? Embracing each of these areas can help ensure your workplace is fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory. However, each plays a slightly different role. 

What Is EEO?

Equal Employment Opportuity (EEO) laws prohibit employers from discriminating against job candidates and employees based on certain characteristics. EEO rights are enforced by two federal agencies within the Department of Labor: the Civil Rights Center (CRC) and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). 

Additionally, the The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is an independent federal agency that enforces certain federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment. 

The laws enforced by the EEOC apply to most employers with 15 or more employees and affect all elements of employment, including hiring, promotions, wages and benefits, training, harassment, and termination. These laws are as follows:

These laws also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who complain of discrimination, file charges related to discrimination, or participate in investigations or lawsuits related to discrimination. When conducting background checks during the hiring process, employers should follow EEOC guidance when considering a candidate’s arrest and conviction history in employment decisions. 

What Is Affirmative Action?

Like EEO laws, affirmative action laws prohibit discrimination. However, they go a step further by proactively working to remedy past discrimination against groups such as women, people of color, military veterans, and people with disabilities. Federal contractors and subcontractors or organizations that receive federal funds over certain dollar limits must comply with President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, which requires creating affirmative action plans for review by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which enforces affirmative action law. 

Affirmative action plans must follow OFCCP guidelines and include: 

  • An analysis of the makeup of your workforce compared to the labor pool
  • Identifying problems (such as a lack of women employees)
  • A practical action plan to solve the problems
  • Metrics for measuring your progress 

What Is DE&I?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is a three-pronged approach to building a stronger workforce that benefits employers, employees, and customers alike. Each element aims to support employees in a different way:

  • Diverse organizations actively recruit employees with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. In addition to protected classes such as different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations, diversity also encompasses varying socioeconomic classes, education levels, past justice system involvement, and life experiences. 
  • Equitable organizations treat all employees fairly, including providing equal pay for comparable work. They also give each employee tools to overcome their unique challenges, such as offering working parents flexible hours or creating quiet spaces for neurodivergent employees. 
  • Inclusive organizations ensure all employees feel that they belong and are valued, supported, and heard. Considering the input of diverse people can help companies get a fuller perspective and ultimately make better business decisions. 

DE&I programs have been shown to help organizations be more innovative, more profitable, and more desirable places to work. In fact, DE&I is rapidly becoming a strategic imperative for businesses. A GoodHire survey of US employees showed 72% of respondents said diverse workplaces are more productive, and 81% said they would consider leaving an employer that wasn’t committed to DE&I.

Stronger Together 

Building an equitable, nondiscriminatory workplace is the right thing to do—and there’s also a solid business case for it. An organization is stronger when it includes all kinds of people. Because creating such a workforce starts with recruiting, equal opportunity, affirmative action, and DE&I are all important considerations in your background screening and hiring process. Working with a qualified consumer reporting agency (CRA), like GoodHire, can help you comply with background check laws while supporting fair hiring practices.

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The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

author karen axelton

Karen Axelton is a Southern California-based freelance writer specializing in business topics. 

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