Q: We know that we cannot discriminate against people because of their race, religion, gender, etc., and we assume our job applicants and employees know that we cannot, and would not, do that as an employer. So, should we include an EEO policy in our handbook?
A: Absolutely. Interestingly, employers that do not receive government contracts generally are not required to include an equal employment opportunity (EEO) statement in their employee handbooks
and personnel policy manuals. However, most employers add one voluntarily to communicate their commitment to basing employment decisions on performance and ability and to show their compliance with federal, state, and local laws prohibiting employment discrimination.
Compliance with these statutes is important not only for legal reasons, but also for sound business reasons. Providing equal employment opportunity broadens your organization’s available applicant pool, while failure to promote equal opportunity can demoralize the workforce and even result in costly and time-consuming litigation. So, if you do not include an EEO policy in your handbook and on your applications, your employees, potential employees, and even customers and clients may
not think that you are committed to basic EEO principles.
Your EEO policy should include at a minimum the following three
- A statement expressing your organization’s commitment to providing equal employment opportunities for all employees and applicants and a workplace free of discrimination. This statement should specifically refer to all federally protected classes, including race, religion, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, military status, and genetic information. In addition, you should include any additional classes that your state protects, such as marital status, sexual orientation, and even the use of tobacco or other lawful products.
- A statement explaining that the policy applies to all terms and conditions of employment and to all policies of your organization.
- A statement encouraging employees to report any complaints of discrimination to their supervisors or the HR manager or similar executive-level manager.
In addition, many employers outline the HR manager’s responsibilities to ensure that the organization follows EEO guidelines.
And, if your organization also is a federal contractor, you should include a reference to your organization’s compliance with applicable affirmative action requirements. (Employers with federal contracts of $50,000 or more and 50 or more employees must create affirmative action plans for
the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of women, minorities, and disabled individuals.) Some employers also include a statement outlining their commitment to diversity, although this is not required.
Of course, to prevent discrimination claims, you have to do more than simply adopt an EEO policy. You also should be concerned about those decisions that involve the subjective judgments of managers or
supervisors, like promotion and transfer, training, and discipline. In addition, you must reinforce your organization’s commitment by applying EEO principles to all decisions, terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, and all policies, communications, and actions. The following seven tips can help you create a positive work environment and limit your exposure to claims:
- Train supervisors and managers to make decisions based on performance, skills, and experience, but not on group stereotypes. Pay special attention to your hiring, discipline, and termination processes. For example, review application forms and train interviewers about inappropriate questions; discipline consistently; and follow specific termination procedures to ensure good decisions.
- Make sure that managers follow your policies and procedures consistently. You do not necessarily have to treat every employee exactly the same, but you should treat “similarly situated” employees
(those with similar jobs, performance histories, and length of employment) as consistently as possible, or have business-related reasons for inconsistencies.
- Review disciplinary and termination actions before implementing them. In particular, involuntary terminations should be reviewed before implementation by the HR department or someone at least one level of management above the immediate supervisor to ensure that discharge is the appropriate course of action.
- Document all employment decisions to show the nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions and explain the decisions to affected employees. You should provide an accurate accounting of the
facts behind the decision and any steps taken prior to the disciplinary action (such as counseling sessions and warnings to improve). These records can be a critical last line of defense if you have to justify your
actions or defend a lawsuit.
- Give employees an opportunity to complain to you. Encourage use of any internal complaint resolution procedures offered by your organization. Some employers set up a site on their Intranets so that employees can lodge complaints internally. If you can get your employees to complain to you, you have a better chance of solving problems and avoiding government agency or court action.
- Make sure you respond to complaints. It is not sufficient just to have a complaint process, since discrimination laws also require you to respond to these complaints promptly. Many courts have held
employers liable because they did not respond to incidents of discrimination that they knew, or should have known, about. (Harassment complaints often are lost on this point.) So, you should investigate every complaint and come to some resolution that you communicate to the complaining employee.
- Implement and enforce clear “no retaliation” policies so that managers and coworkers understand the seriousness of the issue. For example, harassment, equal employment opportunity, and complaint
policies should state plainly that you prohibit retaliation against employees who make complaints or provide information about discrimination or other protected activity. Managers should be trained to
know what actions can be interpreted as retaliatory.