Describe Equal Opportunity in employment. Why is it important?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

            Equal opportunity in employment has been a hot issue in America since the 1960’s, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Title VII of this act prohibited . . . 

discriminatory employment practices based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

            Over the years, the law has been modified to meet new challenges and to add enforcement power to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

            To look at why equal employment opportunity is important, one only has to look at the social context in which the Civil Rights Act was passed. African-Americans, particularly in Birmingham, Alabama, were protesting the failure of the United States government to ensure equality under the law. The protests were met with force, which, in some cases, turned into brutal attacks on the protesters themselves. Television, still a relatively new medium at that point, broadcast images of these attacks across the country, providing protesters and their supporters with an avenue of instant and powerful communication. Instead of having to spend years disseminating information and articulating their views, supporters of equal rights were able to use the images of their opponents to show how hatred and prejudice were operating in the United States. It didn’t take long for President Kennedy to announce that civil rights legislation would soon be taken up in Congress, and that he intended to make it law. Had equal employment already been the practice in America, the rioting and racist violence, including bombings, might never have happened.

            At first, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was expected to deal primarily with race-related claims of unfair employment practices. While it is true that most of the early complaints did fall within this category, there was a surprisingly high percentage of gender based employment complaints (according the EEOC, about 30% of all cases in the first year). As women have become increasingly involved in the country’s business sector, this law has been used to force employers to treat them equally. While full equality has not been achieved, the employment environment for women has improved as a result of the law’s enactment.  

            Over the years, as society as evolved, the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has changed with it. Recent debate has centered largely around the discrimination of lesbians and gays in the workplace. While there is not yet a federal law directly prohibiting discrimination of lesbians and gays, there are many state laws that do so. Based on the direction society is headed, this will continue to be an important issue that will eventually have to be dealt with on a federal level.

            Equal employment law does not always address direct and willful discrimination. In some cases, employers have used less obvious means to avoid hiring minorities. These means, whether intentionally discriminatory or not, have been restricted. For example, some companies require that prospective employees meet certain requirements, such as reaching a specific educational level, to be considered for employment. While this looks like a reasonable requirement, it has sometimes been shown to be illegally prejudicial. In the 1971 case, Griggs vs. Duke, the Supreme Court ruled that an employer cannot use a “neutral” test (one that does not actively discriminate) as an employment requirement when that test is not related to job performance. When the matter becomes a legal issue, it is up to the employer to show that the requirement is related to a job necessity.

            It is also important for employers to look at how they recruit prospective employees. In a 2010 case involving a Chicago janitorial company called Scrub, inc. it was alleged that the company discriminated because they actively avoided hiring a specific group by focusing their hiring efforts on other groups. The EEOC website reports that: 

The EEOC had alleged that the provider had recruited through media directed at Eastern European immigrants and Hispanics and hired people from those groups over African Americans, and that the provider's use of subjective decision making had a disparate impact on African Americans. 

            As a result, Scrub was directed to change its employment practices, as well as hire some previously rejected African-American applicants.

            Equal employment opportunity in the United States has become about more than just discriminating against one minority group. Although the original thrust of the law was meant to help create fair employment for African-Americans, the law and the activities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have become about much more than this. Many groups can find protection, and more are seeking it. Employers are not safe in trying to hide behind seemingly non-prejudicial practices, whether they intend them to prejudicial or not.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a small business owner, I come at this question from a rather particular stand-point. I own a coffee shop – a highly public type of business. The notion that businesses are part of a public trust is remarkably clear on a daily basis in coffee shops (in the café’s reliance on the public for existence and its function as a social space) and this idea speaks to the essence of Equal Employment as a social and civil mandate.

To stick with the coffee shop as an example a bit longer, I would point out that the business model of most coffee shops is to serve a community. From the most obvious numerical standpoint every business owner will say, “The more people who patronize my business, the better off my business will be.” If my café can successfully invite a majority of people within my community, a vibrant business can be done. Casting a wide net in this regard naturally goes against discriminatory policies. Vitality and strength, in business, come from the same sources as vitality and strength in a democracy.

This example is both an analogy for the civic virtues of Equal Employment and an indirect view of the reasons for hiring according to the principles of Equal Employment that public businesses might keep in mind. Access to patronage is very much aligned with access to employment on both a practical and philosophical level. When the staff of a business represents the community it serves, we can argue that the business is at least demographically integrated into that community, fulfilling one aspect of its public trust.

Businesses, like democracies, are built from two directions – from the inside-out and from the outside-in. A clientele builds a business through patronage just as ownership and staff builds a business through production and/or service. This is the nature of commerce, the basic nature of a capitalistic economy, and the basis for the many, many formal and informal relations that arise from these foundations.

Nepotism and discrimination in hiring can create a business identity (even if by default) that can lead to customer disenfranchisement. By hiring only one segment of a community, a business suggests a parallel – that it exists to serve only one segment of a community. The more “private” and insular an enterprise becomes, the narrower its customer base becomes as a result. Thus the fiscal and the social responsibilities of the business become nearly identical. There is a practical mandate to diversify, at least to the extent that the community can be said to be a reflection of the community it serves (and upon which its existence depends).  

In the last decade, our national discourse has spent a great deal of time with concerns about just this kind of insularity (special interest groups, Wall Street insiders, lobbyists and lobbying, and a narrowing set of political polarities in Washington) and disenfranchisement is a serious issue among the voting population. The rancor, turmoil and gridlock produced by this situation is evidence of something systemic and something that the ethos of Equal Employment would seem to stand directly against.

Not to lean too much on analogy, but the resonances between the forms of public trust represented in businesses of all sizes (which literally exist to serve) and that represented by government seems to provide a compelling view of how 20th century American values regarding equal rights, equal representation and equal employment opportunity are drawn from the same egalitarian well, as it were.    

Participation is a key term in this discussion, as it speaks to the fundamental conceits of both capitalism and democracy. If a community does not “participate” in the life of a coffee shop, that coffee shop simply does not survive. To increase its chances of survival, therefore, a coffee shop integrates itself into the community through hiring and other means. In other words, the café participates in the life of the community as a strategy for commercial survival.

Is this not also the ethos of a democracy? 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The U.S.Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created in 1965; it is a federal law enforcement agency that investigates discrimination complaints that can be based upon race, gender (including pregnancy), age, disabilities, genetic information, and retaliation for reporting, participating in, or opposing any discriminating activities. Because this agency exists, there is the practice of Equal Opportunity in employment.

Since the inception of this agency, there have been other inroads made in providing people Equal Opportunity. In the 1970's, for example, there were quotas established for businesses and municipal jobs regarding the racial make-up of employees in order to establish equitable hiring practices. However, there were some problems that came with this well-meaning mandate. One case in point occurred with the fire department of a northwestern suburb of Chicago, a suburb that was 99% white. But, because it was in Cook County (in which Chicago proper is located), which has a much different racial make-up, the quota system demanded that 50% of the firefighters be minorities. As a consequence, a search was conducted for minority firefighters, but the numbers were not filled because of the distance these minorities would have to drive to work. Instead, they chose to work closer to home. But, because of the quotas, others who applied were turned down because they did not meet the necessary profile and the fire department of this suburb did not have enough men. The inevitable happened and there occurred the destruction of two homes on one night because the firemen could not service them quickly enough. Help from other suburbs came, but it was delayed. Had the law been more realistic in its vision, considering an individual town's demographics rather than the county's, this would not have occurred.

While there is no way to prevent some unfairness as demonstrated by the Quota system, Equal Opportunity in employment, nevertheless, has certainly been much more beneficial than it has been negative. Before this law and the establishment of this agency, women were dismissed when they became noticeably pregnant, older workers were arbitrarily dismissed, and minorities were frequently denied jobs for which they were qualified or even much better qualified than others who were hired. One of the best things about EEOC, too, is that employers cannot retaliate against people who make protests against unfair treatment. Now, such employers who have been reported will go out of their way to be fair and even kind to the employee who has filed a legitimate complaint. Knowing that one has such protection provides a certain peace of mind to the employee.

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Equal opportunity in employment refers to making choices based on skills and ensuring that a person best suited or most qualified for a job actually gets that job regardless of other factors such as race, religion, gender or disability. All persons interested in the presented opportunity can compete and be sure that their success or failure has no grounding in anything other than their perceived ability to perform. 

South Africa has a system of quotas in employment and the broad-based Black Economic Empowerment codes of good practise (B-BBEE / BEE) are a reality in ALL sectors. Deadlines to meet the quotas have been extended and, by April 2015, all businesses, dependent on their size must employ a defined number of people of color and comply with the codes. Government Gazette No.37453. South Africa also has a broader 

Some sectors have been slow to adopt the principles but, for example, government departments already insist that only companies that meet their BEE requirements should put forward tenders for government projects or they will be excluded from the process. There is a similar process of Economic Empowerment (EE) for other previously disadvantaged groups such as women and the disabled.

Whilst the essence of the BEE and EE concepts are well thought-out and regulated to prevent misuse and there are many examples where it has worked successfully and created the right opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups, it is managed by people and as such becomes an area where nepotism thrives and poorly qualified persons hold positions in which they cannot succeed. This is detrimental to those excluded from the process and the opportunity and to those who subsequently fail and, in a worse-case scenario, cause companies to fail or departments to fail due to not being able to cope or understand the complexities of their job. 

Some also then believe that it is their right to hold a senior position in a company based on their race, say, and anay lack of potential is not an issue for them. Resentment is rife and, whilst there is an absolute need to redress the inequalities of the past, the system, whilst creating opportunity, is also creating a completely new system based on race and so the difficulties and wrongs are perpetuated. Hence, it is essential, all things being equal (which is obviously where all the problems started in South Africa, due to its previously-regulated system of inequality- Apartheid), and wherever possible, to ensure equal opportunity in employment.      

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Equal opportunity in employment is important for at least two reasons.  First, it is important because it makes our society as a whole more just.  Second, it is important for the economic well-being of various groups in our society.

Equal opportunity in employment can be defined as the situation in which all people who have similar skills have the same chance at a given job.  In such a situation, people are not discriminated against because of their sex or the color of their skin or any other irrelevant traits.  People get or do not get jobs or promotions solely on the basis of their merits.

One reason why this is important is because it is important for our society to be just.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  When our society allows injustice to happen in one situation, it makes it more likely that injustice will happen in many other situations.  If we allow injustice to happen in the realm of employment, we are weakening our society in moral and ethical terms.  This will ultimately damage our society because its individuals will have less of a moral sense.

A second reason why equal opportunity is important is more pragmatic.  Here, we are looking at people’s economic well-being.  It is important for our society to have as many people as possible be well-off.  When we have large numbers of poor people, we hurt ourselves.  We make it more likely, for example, that we will have crime and that we will need to pay for things like welfare services.  If we have equal opportunity in employment, we give more people a good chance at getting a job.  We do not condemn people to poverty by excluding them from good jobs.  This makes our society stronger in economic terms.

Thus, equal opportunity in employment is important both for moral and for economic reasons.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To avoid repetition

Equal opportunity helps all access jobs without bias. This in turn improves diversification and utility of talent that would otherwise be lost due to discrimination.

Equal opportunity is also a matter of policy and certain laws in different countries ensure marginalized members of the community are accorded fair chance in the labor market.