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What is Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)?

Published 15 Feb 2021
7 min read

Everyone should be able to access fair employment, and feel safe and content when they are at work. There are so many reasons why diversity is important for businesses – from creating fair opportunities for all, to creating dynamic and innovative teams and fostering high-growth professional environments. Equal Employment Opportunity is Australia’s legal measure for ensuring diversity from recruitment, right through today-to-day employment.

What is Equal Employment Opportunity?

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) is the Australian legal framework to protect job seekers and employees from discrimination in all areas of work. A common misconception is that EEO refers only to recruitment – with people from all backgrounds and identities being given a fair opportunity to apply for roles at an organisation. This is true, however the framework also extends to an employee’s entire lifecycle at a company. Under EEO, employers can be criminally penalised if they discriminate against or disadvantage workers on the basis of:

  • race
  • colour
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • physical or mental disability
  • marital status
  • family or carer’s responsibilities
  • pregnancy
  • religion
  • political opinion
  • national extraction (place of birth or ancestry)
  • social origin (class, caste or socio-occupational category)
  • industrial activities (such as belonging to a trade union)

A definition put forward by the state government of Victoria sums up EEO as; “Equal opportunity means that every person can participate freely and equally in areas of public life such as in the workplace, in education, or in accessing goods and services… Equal opportunity law aims to promote everyone’s right to equal opportunities; eliminate, as far as possible, discrimination and sexual harassment; and provide redress for people whose rights have been breached.”

What happens if an employer breaches EEO?

If an employer does not comply with EEO, and take steps to reduce the possibility of discrimination within their company, they may receive complaints from job seekers or staff. If not resolved, these complaints can be taken to the Fair Work Ombudsman and employers may find themselves in court and facing fines – we’ll take a look at some examples of this happening below. Additionally to these official penalties, implementing measures to ensure EEO will generally result in a fairer and more enjoyable workplace for all staff. ⚖️ Trying to stay on top of Australian employment law? Here are the employment law updates that you need to know in 2021. Office worker reviewing document

How can employers comply with EEO?

Create an official policy

The best way to comply with equal employment opportunity includes writing equal opportunity measures into your company’s official policies. Create an EEO policy for all of your employees to sign and acknowledge. By doing so, you let your employees know – in writing – that the company values and promotes equal opportunities throughout each level of the business. When formatting, make sure to provide an overview of the policy first, then describe how it operates. It may also be helpful to provide examples of the policy in action. Make sure you’re clear and specific and avoid ambiguous language. Your EEO policy will go hand-in-hand with your anti discrimination policy. It should include clear details on how staff members can submit a complaint and offer a blueprint for how complaints will be escalated and resolved. Which leads us to our next point. 💡 Not sure where to start with writing your policy? Use our free Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti Discrimination Policy Template – it has everything you need to put together the perfect policy.

Implement a process for complaints

When your HR department or managers receive a complaint about Equal Employment Opportunity, take it seriously by responding quickly with a clear process. Here’s a suggested course of action:

  • Meet with the staff member who made the complaint and actively listen as they explain their perspective of the event. Take notes for formal documentation and read your understanding of the situation back to the employee when they’re finished. Ask questions if the complaint is not clear.
  • Investigate the complaint with the involved parties. Gather as much information as possible about the incident or event, and keep a record of your investigation.
  • Make a decision to resolve the issue, informed by the information you’ve gathered, plus your EEO and anti discrimination policies. The next steps you decide on may include taking disciplinary action against the employee whom the complaint was directed towards, or organising a mediation session to discuss the issue with those involved.
  • Follow up with the employee who made the complaint after the next steps have been taken to ensure they’re satisfied with the complaint outcomes.

What not to do:

  • Disregard the employee’s complaint because you assume you understand the situation
  • Wait to take action and let time go by
  • Forget to take notes at each step of the complaint process

If your employee is not satisfied with the complaints response or process, they’re more likely to take it to the Fair Work Ombudsman or Australian Human Rights Commission.

Make sure your hiring teams are unbiased

There can be a lot of bias, conscious and subconscious, that can disrupt a fair hiring process that breaches Equal Employment Opportunity. As they’re at the front of your candidate experience, it’s so important that your hiring teams do not bring any bias to their roles to disadvantage diverse candidates. Bias in hiring can exist at all stages of recruiting such as:

  • Using discouraging language in job descriptions
  • Not fairly considering all applicants based on their backgrounds
  • Not advertising widely enough
  • Not recognising great talent to progress to the next stages

Give your hiring teams and managers all the information they need to recognise and reject bias. Organise some diversity training and open up the discussion about bias. ⚡ Want some more ideas on how to combat hiring bias? Here are 8 great tips to tackle it! Group of people waiting for job interview While you’re working through this with your hiring teams, review the language in your job ads. When presenting each role, consider different types of applicants who may be applying. Be conscious of framing your workplace as an accepting and inclusive place to be. Consider putting a statement on the end of your job ads that invites people of all backgrounds and identities to apply.

Which laws govern equal employment opportunity?

There are a selection of laws which underpin EEO. Let’s walk through how each law does this and check out some real world examples.

Sex Discrimination Act 1984

This Act makes it unlawful to discriminate or disadvantage on the basis of sex, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, breastfeeding, family responsibilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status. This act also protects employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Examples of discrimination on the basis of sex could include:

  • Asking someone if they are pregnant or looking to become pregnant in a job interview
  • Not paying a woman the same salary as a man for doing the same work
  • Refusing to offer flexible working arrangements for new parents

The law in action ⚖️ In Hickie v Hunt & Hunt (1998), Marea Hickie successfully won a complaint against her law firm employer after her request to work part-time following the birth of her child was refused. The Australian Human Rights Commission found the law firm had indirectly discriminated against Marea by requiring her to work full time to maintain her employment, and they had to pay $95,000 in compensation. 💡 Learn more about supporting trans and gender-diverse people in the workplace.

Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA)

This legislation makes discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent or ethnic origin unlawful. Section 18C addresses hate speech and behaviour – prohibiting “racial hatred, defined as a public act/s likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of race.” Examples of discrimination on the basis of race could include:

  • Insisting that all employees speak English at all times, even during their breaks or during personal time
  • Not employing someone from a particular racial group because of discriminatory stereotypes

The law in action ⚖️ In the 1997 case of Rugema v Gadsten Pty, a worker complained of receiving racial insults from his superior in addition to racist gestures. The Equal Opportunity Commission found the workplace had breached the RDA and ordered the workplace to pay the staff member $55,000 in damages.

Disability Discrimination Act 1992

This Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of physical, intellectual, psychiatric, neurological disability, physical disfigurement, disorder, illness or disease and presence in the body of organisms causing disease or illness (e.g. HIV virus). Examples of discrimination on the basis of disability could include:

  • Not offering a person with a disability development opportunities
  • Not organising a disabled car spot for a physically impaired employee in the company carpark

The law in action ⚖️ In the 2010 case Maxworthy vs Shaw, an employee of a business was replaced, with her employer making derogatory comments in her termination about a colostomy bag she wore due to Crohn’s disease. The court found she was dismissed due to her disability and the employer had to pay damages of $15,000. 💡 Read more about how you can support people with disabilities in the workplace. Female lawyer working in office

Age Discrimination Act 2004

This Act (also referred to as the ADA) deems discrimination in employment, plus workplace bullying or harassment, on the basis of age unlawful. It applies to workers of all ages. Examples of age discrimination could include:

  • not employing certain people because they won’t ‘fit in’ with other employees because of their age
  • advertising a position for someone aged ‘under 30′ to join a ‘dynamic, young team’
  • making choices around redundancy, or forcing someone to retire, because of his or her age

The law in action ⚖️ In 2014 the Fair Work Ombudsman took a case to the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane. The case had seen a 64-year-old, long-serving restaurant employee receive a letter from his employer stating that the policy of the company was “that we do not employ any staff that attains the retirement age” and that he would be terminated on his 65th birthday. The employer was fined and forced to pay $10,000 in compensation to the employee.  

Learn more about workplace diversity and inclusion

Are you ready to create a great Diversity and Inclusion strategy in 2021? We’ve put together the complete guide to D&I with everything employers and HR need to know about the subject. Download the Handbook now.  

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