The purpose of equal employment opportunity (EEO) is to ensure fairness in hiring, promotion and other workplace practices. Ultimately, this will encourage a diverse, multi-talented workforce. Equal employment opportunity goals are promoted through a set of federal laws, dating back to the 1960s and addressing many different forms of on-the-job discrimination.

EEO Laws

EEO laws prevent employers from withholding job opportunities based on a worker's sex, race, age, national origin, certain health conditions and other personal characteristics. The first two in this package of laws, the Equal Pay Act and Civil Rights Act, blazed a trail for later expansions of these protections. The 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act empowered a special federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to file certain types of lawsuits against employers who violate the laws.

Forms of Discrimination

Depending on the motivation of the employer, a discriminatory practice is categorized as either intentional or unintentional. Equal opportunity laws prohibit both forms. Intentional discrimination is a deliberate act of bias, like stating in a job advertisement that disabled people will not be considered. Unintentional discrimination does not arise from prejudice but still has a discriminatory effect. For example, if an employer bans all hats on the job, this policy could discriminate against individuals whose religions require them to cover their heads.

EEO Complaint Procedures

Any worker who believes she has experienced discrimination has ready access to government officials who can help. A complaint may be filed, either by the individual or by someone on her behalf, with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or at a state fair employment practices agency. If it is judged to have merit, the EEOC has the power to launch an extensive investigation, which requires the employer's cooperation. The agency may also mediate between the parties.

EEO Policies

The purpose of equal employment opportunity laws is not only to prevent discrimination, but also to encourage positive steps toward fairness in the workplace. Importantly, all employers should educate themselves about their EEO responsibilities. They can provide informational material, like pamphlets and posters, to ensure that workers know their rights. While it is not legally required for all employers, they may also consider establishing affirmative action policies, like outreach to disadvantaged minority job applicants, to boost the diversity of their workforce.