Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is a set of federal and state laws that protect employees from workplace discrimination and job applicants during the hiring process. These laws cover everything from pay equality and diversity to sexual harassment and ageism.
Why is EEO important?
EEO is important because it sets the baseline for how people should treat each other at work. But really, it’s up to each employer to create a culture that doesn’t accept any kind of discriminatory behavior. Doing so isn’t just a matter of staying compliant—it’s essential if you want to create a dynamic and comfortable work environment that helps people thrive.
The EEOC has compiled a list of best practices to help you prevent discrimination at work. This includes developing strong policies, training your team, promoting an inclusive culture, and fostering open communication.
You may want to work with an experienced attorney to develop policies that will help you meet EEO requirements and guide you through any local or state legislation that applies to your company. Understanding regulations for your specific area—including state and local laws—can be complicated. That’s why the EEOC also recommends contacting your local EEOC field office for more guidance.
What types of discrimination do EEO laws cover?
The federal EEO laws require employees to observe anti-discrimination laws and requirements on equal pay, diversity, and harassment.
Here’s a list of the main EEO categories employers need to abide by:
This is a great place to start, but remember to check if any state-specific EEO laws affect you, as they may offer extra protection. For example, California protects employees against discrimination based on gender identity.
Does my business have to follow EEO laws?
Coverage depends on the number of employees you have. Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has to say:
- Do you have more than 15 employees who worked at least 20 calendar weeks for you this year or last? Then you likely need to follow the federal EEO laws pertaining to most types of discrimination.
- Do you have more than 20 employees? Then you likely need to follow the EEO laws pertaining specifically to age discrimination. (The 20-week threshold applies again here.)
- Do you have any employees at all? Almost all employers must follow the Equal Pay Act (EPA), which makes it illegal to pay different wages to men and women if they perform the same work in the same workplace.
One of the most complex pieces of the puzzle is figuring out how many of your workers count as “employees.” For example, part-time employees don’t count unless they’ve worked for you for at least 20 weeks. And folks like independent contractors or anyone who isn’t technically employed by your company don’t count either.
The EEOC provides some guidance on how to count your employees, but the best bet is to consult an HR expert to confirm your results. You can also consult one of the EEOC’s field offices for a definitive decision.
And remember: check your state’s EEO laws—they are often more strict than federal laws. For example, in Wisconsin, employers with one or more employees must follow most EEO laws.
How do I stay compliant with EEO laws?
While one of the EEOC’s primary roles is to investigate charges of discrimination, they may also conduct occasional audits. They keep an eye out for issues like pay equity, and they also make sure criminal checks, credit reviews, and health care information isn’t being misused or improperly collected.
Even if you’re not yet required to adhere to federal and state EEO laws, it’s a good idea to protect your employees and observe EEO guidelines.
Here are some things you can do to stay compliant with EEO requirements:
- Don’t discriminate. Follow all the anti-discrimination laws when hiring and managing your employees.
- Post a copy of the “EEO is the Law” poster. Put it in a location that’s clear to everyone and accessible for those with limited mobility, like the lunchroom. This poster outlines the laws that prevent discrimination and explains how employees can file a complaint. Download and print the “EEO is the Law” poster here.
- Keep certain paperwork on file for a period of time. For example, you need to keep employment records for one year and payroll records for four years. Get a more detailed overview at the EEOC website here and here.
- File an EEO-1 Report (if you need to). Do you have 100 or more people on your team? What about 50 or more folks and a government contract of at least $50,000? Then you may need to file the EEO-1 Report. It’s a report that tells your state that you’ve just hired an employee. You can file the EEO-1 form online. If you’ve never filed before, make sure you register your company before starting.
Pro tip: Keep good records of everything! If you’re ever audited by the EEOC, you’ll need proof that you didn’t discriminate. As always though, it’s best to consult an HR expert in your area who can provide guidance on how to appropriately adhere to the EEOC.
What happens if I break EEO laws?
Ideally, all employers place employee protection high on their list of priorities, but it’s important to know what can happen if you don’t follow them.
There’s a sliding scale for not complying with EEO laws. On the lower end, employers who fail to post the “EEO is the Law” poster in employee common areas can be fined $576, and an EEO claim for employers with 15-100 employees is capped at $50,000. This maximum scales with company size to $300,000 for a company with more than 500 employees.
You can read the full list of damages here. As always, be sure to check the state-level guidelines as well.
What happens if I get an EEO complaint?
Complaints are never fun to deal with—however, you should know the basics in case you find yourself confronting a claim.
If an incident occurs, employees and job applicants have 180 days (or up to 300 days in some states) to file a Charge of Discrimination. The charge can be submitted by another individual, lawyer, or organization to help protect the person’s anonymity.
Once that happens, the EEOC assigns an investigator to look into the claim, which may involve interviews, statements, and other documentation. Alternatively, the employer can decide to resolve the case through mediation.
Once the investigator has wrapped up their assessment, they’ll decide whether to dismiss or move forward with the charge. If the charge has legs, the EEOC needs to notify the employer within 10 days. Then, they’ll work with all parties involved to remedy the situation.
Being an EEOC-compliant employer is entirely doable—you just need to know where to go. If you build a strong, open culture and follow these EEO requirements, you can rest easy knowing you’re treating your team as fairly as can be.
For more tips and information, visit this EEOC page.