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EEO, AA, Diversity — What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

You’ve probably heard someone ask, “Why should I care about workplace diversity when the government has already taken care of it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Act?” or “Why do we need diversity when we have affirmative action?” Keep reading to learn the differences and best practices of recruiting and hiring a diverse team.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 provides freedom from employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Equal employment opportunity (EEO) also protects employees from retaliation after having voiced, filed, or taken part in a discrimination complaint or lawsuit. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is responsible for enforcing these laws.

Affirmative action (AA) has a broader reach in that it encompasses policies that support members of disadvantaged groups that have suffered historical discrimination through education, employment, or housing. Key to AA is that it is deemed a social and moral obligation to amend historical wrongs and improve opportunities for historically excluded or underrepresented groups in the United States. Many organizations have affirmative action plans (AAPs) that include numerical measures intended to increase the representation of ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and veterans. Additionally, federal contractors above certain dollar limits are required to have AAPs. Without violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, other employers may also institute voluntary AAPs to remedy past discrimination, if certain conditions are met. These activities are governed by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Plans (OFCCP).

Diversity is the wide range of differences that exist among people. It is appreciating, honoring, acknowledging, and valuing the social, cultural, and personal differences reflected in each person. Diversity moves beyond correcting historical patterns and discriminatory practices to valuing employee difference in order to improve overall organizational performance. Where EEO and AA are legally driven mandates, diversity is voluntary, intentional, and preemptive change creating a culture of respect and dignity where difference is leveraged for increased performance and competitive edge. Diversity is broader than benefitting protected classes, which is a source of angst for some. Diversity is all the efforts to include everyone, including white men. While EEO and AA are focused mainly on demographics that include gender, race, ethnicity, and mental and physical ability, diversity encompasses a wide range of dimensions like cognitive style, personality type, functional background, unique experiences, personal identities, ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Diversity is part of an organization’s business strategy.

Diversity, EEO, and AA deal with issues related to discrimination, but in unique ways. The three are complementary in function and intent but vary in their goals and outcomes. To ensure your organization is operating out of best practices to attract, recruit, hire, and retain diverse employees:

  1. Educate leaders as well as team members about EEO, AA, diversity, inclusion, bias, and unconscious bias and the impact to your organization.
  2. Encourage diversity in recruiting, hiring, development advancement, and succession planning.
  3. Educate all team members regularly about your organization’s EEO policies and the process for EEO and discrimination claims and/or issues within the organization.
  4. Annually give opportunity for team members to voluntarily self-identify on EEO/AA forms, if they did not initially provide the information or wish to revise their status, letting them know there are no adverse consequences for choosing to or not to provide the information.
  5. Incorporate a multipronged approach to recruiting diversity into your organization.
  6. Review your selection criteria to state your specific needs for a job versus the “kitchen sink” approach of including every possible criterion in job postings.
  7. Train interviewers on unconscious bias.
  8. Institute a blind resume/qualification-screening process, eliminating keywords or information that could bias interviewers.
  9. Utilize multiethnic, multigender, multigenerational, and multifunctional interview panels to help eliminate bias and provide broader perspectives about candidates.
  10. Combine social media recruiting with traditional recruiting methods.
  11. Implement returnships (for people returning to the workforce after a gap in employment), senior citizen internships, remote-work arrangements, and phased career exits alongside traditional internships, job sharing, and flexible schedules.
  12. Offer flexible employee benefits that include reimbursement accounts employees can use to payoff student debt, out-of-pocket health, or dependent-care expenses, as well as flexible health insurance and retirement benefits options.

Understanding the differences and relationship between EEO, AA, and diversity helps your organization leverage similarities, maintain compliance, and lay a foundation for embracing the increasingly more diverse world of work.

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