Equal Opportunity Employment Defined

What Is the Meaning of an Equal Opportunity Employer?: Definition Explained

Discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem that can not only negatively impact workplace productivity but, more importantly, can negatively impact the health of employees. To prevent workplace discrimination and the negative consequences that are associated with it, the government has enacted several laws regarding equal-opportunity employment.

If you are seeking employment, it is important to have an understanding of equal opportunity employment, as this information can help you to gain a better understanding of the fair hiring process, as well as the criteria prospective employers may use when they are making hiring decisions; in other words, it can help you find and apply to better employment opportunities.

Below, you’ll find an overview of equal opportunity employment, including what it is, as well as examples and an outline of exceptions to equal opportunity legislation.

Equal Opportunity Employment Defined

Federal law, equal opportunity employment requires employers to use fair recruitment processes. It prevents them from discriminating against personal traits or factors outside of a job applicant’s ability and merit.

Examples of these characteristics include:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Ethnicity
  • Age
  • Physical status

The protections granted under equal opportunity law were derived from Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, which are laws that prohibit workplace discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is an independent federal agency, is tasked with promoting equal opportunity in the workplace by enforcing EEO civil rights laws, and providing employers and job applicants with opportunities that educate them about equal opportunity employment.

As mentioned, equal opportunity employment not only prohibits employers from letting specific characteristics of applicants influence their decision to hire or reject job candidates, but it also dictates employment decisions, such as promotions and wage increases. Though the specific personal characteristics that are protected under equal opportunity law vary and change, generally, they include the following:

  • Race and skin color
  • Ethnicity
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex or gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical and/or mental disability

Working Women getting equal opportunity at workplace

There are some groups of people that fall within the above-mentioned categories that may be considered either minorities or underrepresented groups, and the goal of equal opportunity employment laws is to ensure that all individuals have access to the same opportunities so that they may achieve their professional goals and success in their careers.

Equal Opportunity Employment Examples

Below, you will find an overview of some examples of personal traits and characteristics that are commonly covered under equal opportunity employment protection.


Under equal opportunity laws, employers cannot base their decision to hire or pass up applicants based solely on their race. For instance, an employer cannot make the decision to hire a job applicant simply because he or she is black, nor can they make the decision not to hire a job applicant simply because he or she is white.

Likewise, an employer cannot base promotions, such as wage increases, on an employee’s race; for example, they cannot decide to give an employee a raise simply because he or she is Asian. Should an employee base their decision to hire or pass up an applicant or provide benefits based solely on his or her race, that would be considered discrimination.

They would be in violation of equal opportunity employment laws.


Similar to race, an employer cannot base their decision to hire or not hire applicants based solely on their sex. For instance, a woman cannot be given preference for a position over a man simply because she is a woman, and likewise, a man cannot be overlooked for a position simply because he is a man.

Similarly, an employer cannot decide to increase an employee’s salary simply because he is a male. Should an employer base their decision to hire someone based solely on his or her sex, that would be considered discrimination, and the employer would be in violation of equal opportunity employment.


Individuals of all ages have the same right to apply for job openings. They also have the same right to receive promotions within the companies that they are employed by. Business owners and organizations are prohibited from basing hiring decisions and promotions on a job candidate’s age under equal opportunity employment laws.

These laws clearly state that the age of a candidate does not contribute to his or her ability or suitability to meet job requirements and performance; rather, business owners and organizations must consider the skills, experience level, and ability level of job candidates when making decisions regarding employment or promotions.


Under equal opportunity laws, businesses and organizations are not permitted to make decisions about prospective job candidates based on their religion; likewise, they cannot base these decisions on the religion of existing employees.

The religious beliefs of a job candidate do not impact his or her ability to successfully complete the responsibilities and tasks that a job requires. Therefore, religion cannot be a contributing factor in the recruitment of new employees or the promotion of existing employees.

Exceptions to Equal Opportunity Laws

Happy Employees

There are some situations when exceptions may exist that pertain to characteristics that are protected under equal opportunity employment laws. Generally speaking, these exceptions pertain to what is referred to as “genuine occupational qualifications” that are required for particular job roles.

In some instances, the nature and the requirements of specific jobs, including the duties, requirements, and skills, may allow employers to make decisions regarding employment on characteristics that would otherwise be protected under equal opportunity employment laws.

To illustrate this point, there are some jobs that require employees to have particular characteristics in order to fulfill the requirements of the job. However, it is important to note that typically, these exceptions usually look for particular individuals rather than excluding small groups of people.

For instance, a production company that is seeking an actor to play a male role or to play an older individual can screen for candidates to fill that role based on sex or age in order to ensure that they are able to hire the right person to fill the position. Likewise, a clothing designer that makes clothes specifically for women can recruit only females to fill modeling roles.

Affirmative Action Explained

Affirmative action is another feature of equal opportunity employment laws that take specific protected characteristics into consideration. With affirmative action, the active pursuit of achieving a diverse workplace within a company, an organization, or a society permits said companies, organizations, and societies to make decisions regarding employment and promotions based on traits.

The goal of affirmative action is to achieve a fair balance of protected groups of people. For example, a company can seek to employ more of a certain group of people if that group is underrepresented in their workplace, and they can establish incentives and quotas that will allow the company to sustain a diverse workplace.

The purpose of these incentives would be to provide an equal workforce as well as an equal culture.

By implementing these incentives, hiring managers can attempt to attract a more diverse pool of prospective job candidates to fulfill a particular role within the workplace. The hiring manager would then examine and take additional factors into consideration, such as experience, skills, and performance when making the final decision to hire an employee.

Affirmative action is a broad structure of initiatives that include campaigning, education, and job advertising. Business owners, organizations, and societies are permitted to create programs that are designed to support underrepresented groups of people or to host events for groups that communicate a company’s desire to employ all kinds of people.

The introduction of training programs can allow companies effectively avoid biases within industries, as well as hiring managers, in order to reduce discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious in nature.

Affirmative Action Examples

Affirmative action is practiced in several industries and several sectors. A common example in which affirmative action is prevalent is the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The reason that this practice is so widely applied to this field is that for a long time, men dominated STEM and industries related to it. Through the application of affirmative action, the field is more balanced, as now, there are more men and women across STEM-related organizations.

A lot of STEM organizations campaigned to boost the number of women they employed on their teams in order to establish an equal balance between the sexes. Through affirmative action initiatives, the STEM industry better reflects society.

Aviation is another example of an industry in which affirmative action has been practiced. For decades, the field of aviation was dominated by males, and with the introduction of affirmative action campaigns, it is not more diverse, as more women are employed in the field than ever before.

Again, affirmative action practices have made it possible for the field of aviation to better reflect society.

Benefits of Working For An Equal Opportunity Employer

The following are some of the most notable benefits of working for an equal-opportunity employer:

  • Increased diversity in the workplace
  • Merit-based system
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced discrimination in the workplace
  • More diverse clientele