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Why equal employment opportunity matters

Equal employment opportunity (EEO) is a principle upheld by the belief that all people should be considered fairly and equally throughout the hiring process and while working at an organisation. EEO asks that people should not be judged or subject to job discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity, marital status, sex, age, or religion.

In some organisations, the hiring process is becoming automated using AI which can help to avoid bias. This too has its disadvantages though, as some decision-making – like assessing the skills or experience of job applicants – is more nuanced than a computer’s ability to analyse applications.

How do equal employment opportunity laws protect job applicants?

Based upon the Equality Act 2010 as outlined on gov.uk, there are nine protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

No one should be treated unfairly due to characteristics within these nine categories. They should also not be given an unfair advantage according to how they identify within these nine characteristic groups.

Sexual harassment falls under the Equality Act 2010 as it is considered unlawful discrimination. All too often, sexual harassment is seen through the lens of heterosexuality, but a TUC report from 2019 documented that nearly 7 (68%) in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people had experienced sexual harassment at work. However, only two thirds of those who were harassed reported it. This is not a new issue but one which more people have felt able to talk about in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The report was the first major study into LGBT sexual harassment at work and demonstrates that much work needs to be done by employers and human resources to ensure that everyone feels safe at work.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was originally established to tackle issues related to sex discrimination. In October 2007 the EOC merged with the Disability Rights Commission to help tackle disability discrimination and the Commission for Racial Equality to confront racial discrimination. Combined, these three groups formed the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The EHRC extends its protection to all minority groups who may face any kind of discrimination because of who they are.

Also key in discrimination law is the Equal Pay Act 1970 introduced by the Labour Employment Minister Barbara Castle. The creation of the Equal Pay (No. 2) Bill (which later became the Equal Pay Act) was triggered by the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham. A group of 187 female sewing machinists downed tools because they were being paid 15% less than their male colleagues, a story that’s told in the film Made In Dagenham. The Equal Pay Act gives an individual the right to the same contractual pay and benefits as a person of the opposite sex in the same employment. However, 50 years later in 2020, the UK overall median gender pay gap was still 17.3%.

The rise in home genetic testing kits like 23andMe and AncestoryDNA means that many people’s genetic profiling is stored and potentially used (with their permission) in research. In the wrong hands though, this information could be used against them. The United States issued the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), a federal law to safeguard members of the public from employment discrimination based upon genetic information. This extended beyond personal genetic tests to genetic tests of family members as well as family medical history. In the UK, the use of genetic test results to discriminate in either employment or insurance is prohibited under the Equality Act 2010. Employers may only ask for information that is directly relevant to the person’s ability to carry out the work asked of them, or to provide reasonable accommodation in the workplace, enabling the person to work there.

How does equal employment opportunity affect the workplace?

Since the pandemic has forced many companies to establish remote working, some people have found that it provides a better work-life balance as they can fit work in around family commitments. A recent landmark case and win in the UK for an estate agent, who had asked if she could leave work early to pick up her child from nursery, has highlighted the need for flexibility, but also the discrimination to which many mothers are subjected in the workplace.

For people who are disabled or neurodivergent, working remotely with some days in the office according to their needs, can be vital to their wellbeing and ability to do good work. The idea of clocking in and clocking out is a throwback to the industrial revolution when people predominantly did manual labour. Tech companies and startups were better equipped to deal with remote working from the start of the pandemic as they had more policies related to working from home and flexible working.    

Equal employment opportunity in the workplace means that a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives get to bring their ideas to the table. This has greater repercussions more broadly in culture and society because it gives voice to and legitimises the various life experiences of many different people. As a general example, seeing Kamala Harris in the position of Vice President of the United States is inspiring for many people across the world and shows structural change taking place.

Taking affirmative action that is genuine in its intention of improving both diversity and inclusion within an organisation makes for a happier workplace where all feel comfortable and can work to their highest potential. It’s within an organisation’s interest to care about the sense of belonging and wellbeing of their employees.

How to ensure equal employment opportunity

Workplaces must have policies in place that champion EEO – they can’t be just words in a handbook or on a website, the organisation has to work to make them visible in practice not only in theory. Resources like the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) offer good template EEO policies which provide a starting point from which companies can write their own policy. These templates offer the basics for any equal opportunities employer to ensure they are in line with discrimination laws but can be customised with the company tone of voice and go beyond the basic expectations to attract diverse talent. For example, some companies offer extra days for annual leave which can be used for religious holidays. Being actively anti-discrimination, publicly standing up for equality, and regularly reviewing policy shows that a company is truly invested in equal opportunity.     

Anti-discrimination training and unconscious bias training can help raise awareness, but the conversation needs to continue within any organisation outside of these training sessions.

How to be an equal opportunity champion

If you’re a management or HR professional who sees the need for change at the heart of organisations and are wondering how you can be part of it, the University of Lincoln’s MSc Management with Human Resources is for you. 

Discover more about current practices in human resources that encourage diversity and inclusion and how to keep raising the bar with a Master’s at Lincoln.