Disclaimer: We don't provide legal advice, nor is this a legal document. Consult an attorney to learn about your company's specific legal requirements or the law.
In the legal sense of the EEO definition, “same chances” or “equal opportunity” means that employers cannot use certain characteristics as reasons to hire or reject candidates or make other employment decisions; in other words, they cannot discriminate against those characteristics. In many countries, protected characteristics include:
- Race / color
- National origin / ethnicity
- Sex / gender / sexual orientation
- Physical or mental disability
EEO doesn’t guarantee that people of underrepresented groups will get hired. The purpose of EEO regulations is to make sure nobody will face rejection or difficulties because they’re in a protected group.
For example, under several EEO laws, you cannot reject a candidate simply because they’re Jewish or Christian, African or Caucasian, or because they’re pregnant. Similarly, you cannot advertise jobs asking for candidates of a certain age, and you cannot promote men over women – you can only base this decision on each person’s proven capabilities, performance and other objective criteria, rather than biases against protected groups.
If your company fails to comply with equal employment opportunity regulations, you may face complaints, lawsuits and fines. There are also the intangible costs associated with having a uniform instead of diverse workforce; you’re missing out on the benefits of different perspectives and approaches to the work at hand.
To keep track of how EEO compliant organizations are, U.S. regulations require some employers to file the EEO-1 report. Generally, if you have more than 100 employees, or you’re a federal contractor with more than 50 employees and a federal contract worth more than $50,000, you’ll need to file an EEO-1 report.
Don't miss our complete EEO guide for employers
Bona fide occupational qualification
Equal employment opportunity that concerns protected characteristics does have some exceptions. These exceptions of the EEO definition are bona fide qualifications (or “genuine occupational qualifications” in the UK) for a specific job. The nature of certain jobs may allow you to make an employment decision based on one of the protected characteristics.
For example, if you’re hiring for an actor to play a teenager, you can hire a person more closely to the age of the film character, rather than a middle-aged actor. Or, if a company makes clothes for men, it can advertise for male models. Another example is when a religious organization of a certain faith hires only candidates who share that faith if their job is related to it (for instance, when they are members of the clergy.)
There’s another special case when considering specific protected characteristics. This comes in the form of affirmative action: the conscious, proactive pursuit of gender balance and diversity in an organization by supporting protected groups who are traditionally discriminated against.
For example, if your software development team is all white males, you can lawfully partner with associations of female, African or Asian engineers to find great candidates and assemble a team that is more representative of the society where they’ll be working. You still shouldn’t make the final hiring decision because of a person’s protected characteristic; you can only try to attract diverse candidates to broaden your talent pool.
This logic extends to fully formed programs that support affirmative action through education. Introducing training programs to combat hidden biases of hiring teams is an effective way to reduce unconscious discrimination.
Yet, because race-based affirmative action was banned in some U.S. states, the road is open for other effective EEO strategies. At the very least, craft an EEO policy to ensure your employees know you value fairness and diversity.
Equal Employment Opportunity should extend beyond the law
Using arbitrary and non-job-related criteria is the surest way to unfairly discriminate against people, even unwittingly. For example, when screening resumes, consider whether a person’s degree from a prestigious school truly speaks to their suitability for the job you’re hiring for. It’s not illegal to only hire candidates from Ivy League schools, but it certainly narrows your talent pool and reduces the chances of you finding the absolute best candidate out there. Make sure you always use the most objective criteria possible.
Of course, equal opportunity, diversity and relevant laws keep evolving. Different countries or states might enact new regulations, and companies might try out new EEO strategies. Be sure to check for updates regularly and don’t be afraid to test new ways of building a fair, ethical workplace.
Now that you know the answer to the question “what is EEO?”, check out our guides on EEOC regulations, the EEO-1 report and EEO statements. And, consider taking actions to combat overlooked types of discrimination, like age discrimination.