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EEO vs. affirmative action

EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) ensures everyone is treated fairly in employment decisions, combating biases against protected characteristics. Affirmative Action, on the other hand, actively supports groups that have faced past discrimination, implementing measures like hiring quotas to correct historical inequalities and promote workplace diversity.

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

You’ve probably heard the discussion about EEO vs. affirmative action. EEO (equal employment opportunity) and affirmative action are certainly relevant terms and therefore easy to mix up. Here’s the difference between EEO and affirmative action:

EEO is giving everyone the same opportunity to thrive, while affirmative action is actively supporting those who’ve been consistently deprived of fair and equal treatment.

To make this distinction clearer, let’s dig deeper into their individual definitions:

Note that neither Workable nor the author provide legal advice. Always consult an attorney for legal matters.


What is EEO?

The idea behind the equal employment opportunity definition is that everyone should be treated fairly and have the same chances to succeed when they’re considered for employment decisions (such as hiring or termination). This implies people responsible for those decisions have succeeded in combating any systemic or individual biases they have against particular characteristics (most often protected characteristics like race, gender, age, disability, etc.)

More about EEO:

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action describes all initiatives that support members of a disadvantaged group that has suffered past discrimination. We see affirmative action programs mostly when it comes to education or government jobs. The underlying idea is that equal opportunity means nothing if past inequalities haven’t been corrected.

For example, several countries have implemented hiring quotas (like the caste quota in India or the Employment Equity Act in Canada) or have special admissions programs for higher education to give opportunities to underprivileged children. This is because large disparities in early opportunities will result in the more privileged getting hired more often for better-paying jobs (those privileged are usually white males, but often, members of non-preferred groups also have greater privileges than other members of their group – think about the difference in educational opportunities between a black girl from a village and a black boy from a large city, like New York).

An example from the workplace itself is when organizations decide to set goals of a 50-50 balance between male and female employees in senior positions, and when governments introduce legislation to enforce similar goals as seen recently in California.

EEO VS affirmative action

Equal opportunity is almost universally accepted as desirable. Affirmative action, on the other hand, has gone through various legal battles and heated debate in the U.S. and other countries. This is because some affirmative action practices, like racial quotas, can be thought of as discriminatory against people who don’t belong into underrepresented groups (in other words, “reverse discrimination”). That’s why some U.S. states, for example, have declared these types of affirmative action as generally unlawful. Internationally, countries such as Sweden (in 2010) and the UK (described as “positive discrimination” under the Equality Act 2010) have also declared it unlawful.

Though the validity of this view is up for debate, there are types of affirmative action (or positive action) that are lawful and can help build a fairer workplace. For example, an organization that steadily receives applications from white men could launch a targeted campaign to encourage minorities and women to apply.

Generally, organizations should look at EEO, diversity, discrimination and affirmative action more holistically, and consider everyone’s point of view. Bias training, communication training and objective employment processes (e.g. structured job interviews) can help employees be more accepting of colleagues belonging in different groups and also help eliminate unconscious biases.

So we shouldn’t be talking about affirmative action vs equal opportunity but rather, how equal opportunity and affirmative action principles can be applied in complementary fashion to improve the balance of our workplaces and society in general.

Want more definitions? See our complete library of HR Terms.

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