EEO or Affirmative Action or DE&I – Is There A Choice For Employers?

Over the last several years, organizations have started to focus on creating and implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in order to recognize and respond to the interests and needs of the personnel that make up their workforce. However, in these efforts, organizations sometimes assume there isn’t a need for Equal Employment Opportunity or Affirmative Action efforts. This can be a critical misstep – each program contributes to an organization’s success in unique ways. EEO, Affirmative Action, and DEI are not interchangeable. They are interrelated and represent specific areas of decision making.

As HR professionals, you are required to adhere to governmental regulations and requirements, be up to date on proper tracking of workforce data, and stay in-tuned with cultural demands all while ensuring that you’re hiring, training, and retaining personnel that meet the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. It’s a lot to manage. How do you know what to focus priority on and what to invest resources in?

Let’s start out with some definitions so we’re all on the same page.

What is Equal Employment Opportunity?

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) is the principle that everyone should be treated fairly when they are considered for various employment decisions, such as hiring, promotion, termination, and compensation. And, that everyone should have equal access to employment opportunities based on their accomplishments, skills, and abilities, regardless of their race, sex, color, religion, disability, national origin, or age.

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action is a government policy designed to help minorities and disadvantaged groups find employment, get admitted to colleges/universities, and obtain housing. The policy was introduced in 1961 in President John F. Kennedy’s executive orders. It stated that applicants must be treated fairly regardless of their race, color, or national origin. Over the years we’ve seen these efforts to protect workers through the following: The Equal Pay Act of 1963; the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covering race, color, religion, and national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protecting workers of a certain age; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to cover people with disabilities; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. These are just a handful of the affirmative action policies throughout history.

In the workplace, job seekers will see messages that promote diversity and inclusion during the employment application process. Companies often provide selections for applicants to identify as a minority or indigenous individual.

EEO vs. Affirmative Action

The key difference between EEO and affirmative action is that EEO focuses on giving every job candidate the same opportunity to succeed and affirmative action focuses on supporting job candidates who’ve been deprived of fair and equal treatment, typically minority groups. Despite these two differences, both principles have the ultimate goal of fairness.

What is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Where EEO and Affirmative Action tend to focus on front end opportunities for job candidates, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) dig deeper into working relationships, organizational development, and internal policies. As Patti DeRosa, president of ChangeWorks Consulting states, “’Affirmative action’ means if you come to a party, you can get in the door. But it doesn’t help you once you’re inside. ‘Diversity and inclusion’ is what happens once you’re inside the door.” Organizational programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion are voluntary while affirmative action and EEO are legally mandated. DE&I is about organizations creating environments composed of people with varying backgrounds, while at the same time finding a way to ensure they all feel valued and set up to work together, communicate well, reach their potential, and be successful.

What It All Means For Job Seekers and Employees

If you ask people of color, from different cultures, with disabilities, in older age ranges, of different genders, and other areas of diversity, not everyone cares just about landing a job. People are just as concerned as anyone else about opportunities for advancement/professional development, challenging assignments, name exposure, meeting decision makers, and more. Today’s workforce is looking for evidence that companies are taking diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously.

What It All Means For Employers

EEO includes employment decisions such as recruitment, hiring, compensation, training, performance evaluations, promotion, awards, termination, and other conditions of employment.

Affirmative action programs must be designed and carried out to comply with EEO, while not creating discrimination against other groups.

DEI focuses on individual employee/group differences, cultural differences, and physical distinctions associated with groups. How does this benefit an employer? DEI helps to attract and retain talent; foster innovation, differences in skills and experience, and creativity; and ensures work environments that are respectful, eliminate barriers, and provide inclusion to participate.

However, DEI is difficult for companies to get right. Why?

First – is there a proper, agreed upon definition of diversity? No. Is your organization diverse when you have a 50/50 gender balance? How do you know the right percentages to have for ethnicities, age groups, education levels, physical disabilities, or religions?

And how do you implement diversity? You certainly don’t want to force it. For example, the number of Hispanics is growing in the Midwest of the U.S. Should organizations hire to reflect changes with each census that is released from the government, or let diversity in ethnicity grow organically?

Second – diversity can be a moving target, expanding from employees to vendor partners to suppliers. There has been a growing movement that promotes focus on going into partnerships with women-owned, minority-owned, and LGBTQ-owned businesses. How should organizations go about finding the appropriate diverse organizations with which to partner?

Third – can diversity truly work if it’s not implemented hand-in-hand with inclusion? For example, if an organization wants to hire more women, has it considered the need for more women’s washrooms? If a company wants to ensure everyone needs to feel heard and has the opportunity to contribute in meetings, how will the way meetings are run be revised to accommodate that effort?

Fourth – believe it or not, age ranges can influence how people view diversity and inclusion. For example, in a Deloitte study, they report that millennials view diversity as the blending of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives within a team. While Boomers and Gen-Xers view diversity as a representation of fairness and protection to all.

The First Step in Building a Great DEI Program

You’ve certainly heard the saying, before you build the house you must pour a solid foundation. Well, before you can erect your DEI program (house), you must understand and interpret your workforce metrics correctly (foundation). Then you can leverage those metrics to build a fair, diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for each employee in your organization.

Assemble a DEI team to establish DEI success metrics for your company. Review and analyze your current HR data, then determine what your DEI metrics should include, by answering questions such as:

  • What is your ratio of men to women? Race to race? Able-bodied to disabled?
  • Is your organization diverse at each level of pay grades and job titles?
  • For your company’s diverse groups, what are your employee retention levels and satisfaction scores on surveys?
  • Thinking outside the workforce, are your customers satisfied? How about your suppliers and vendor partners?
  •  Is your organization known for being diverse, equitable, and inclusive?

Wrapping It Up

EEO, Affirmative Action, and DE&I are different yet interrelated. Each topic represents a required area of decision making that should be valued and top of mind for all organizations. As Alexandria Love writes in Berrett-Koehler Publishers, “Diversity is the chorus of different voices in the conversation. Inclusion is uplifting, validating, and hearing each and every voice. Equity is the manner in which we amplify voices.” We live and work in a diverse society – there is power in that!

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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