Having the right HR policies in place is key to organizational success—and an employment equity policy is one of the most important ones.
What exactly is employment equity? In essence, it’s a proactive approach to increasing opportunities for employees of historically marginalized groups. Employment equity policies seek to eliminate barriers to employment and advancement for these individuals.
In the U.S., this concept is often called equal employment opportunity (EEO) or affirmative action, while employment equity is the standard term in Canada.
Employment equity seeks to ensure that people of similar abilities will have the same opportunities in the workplace. By doing so, it aims to give all employees access to their desired career pathways.
Employment equity means more than just committing to treating employees equally. Rather, it involves a spectrum of actions to accommodate differences and boost inclusivity.
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The Need for Employment Equity
Employment equity responds to the underrepresentation of particular groups in the workplace—especially in more sought-after roles. “Women and people of color at all education levels overwhelmingly make up most of the workforce in lower-paying jobs,” writes the Center for American Progress.
Simply upskilling workers doesn’t come close to providing a full solution, they note. Without comprehensive policy-based changes, structural inequities and biases will continue placing marginalized employees at a disadvantage.
A great employment equity policy will boost accountability, helping you uphold your commitment to fairness. Plus, it will convey this commitment to current and prospective employees. Further, improving diversity at all levels will improve the quality of ideas and thinking. The entire organization benefits when it commits to equitable practices.
Elements of Employment Equity
Let’s examine several key aspects of employment equity policies, starting with beneficiaries.
Who Should Benefit?
Employment equity policies should benefit people who are most likely to experience workplace discrimination. Policies should explicitly cover the following demographic groups:
- Indigenous people
- People of color
- People with disabilities
- LGBTQ+ individuals
- Trans and gender-nonconforming individuals
People from these groups are too often passed up for promotions and raises. Employment equity policies help ensure they receive the opportunities they deserve.
An employment equity policy must do more than prohibit discrimination. After all, bias can still persist even when people think they are avoiding discriminatory practices. Rather, it must build in structural ways of combating discrimination, like these:
- Equity in hiring: This means committing to selecting candidates based on merit. But what if two candidates have equal merit? The policy might then direct HR to choose the candidate from one of the above groups. Further, equitable hiring means using inclusive recruitment practices that will reach and attract diverse talent.
- Inclusive advancement practices: This entails giving promotions to the most qualified candidates. In turn, that means providing high-quality training to every employee. Managers must work with their employees to create a plan for professional growth. Then, they must connect them with relevant training, resources, and guidance.
- Equitable pay structures: This means eliminating pay gaps between employees with comparable qualifications and roles.
Misconceptions about employment equity still persist. Importantly, it does not involve hiring or advancing unqualified individuals. Rather, it seeks to give all qualified persons equal opportunities.
Employment Equity Policies
Who legally oversees employment equity—and what laws are in place? Let’s review the relevant legislation in Canada and the U.S.
The Canadian government passed the Employment Equity Act in 1986. Critics said the legislation should have applied to federal employees as well and that it should not have relied on voluntary measures. In 1996, a revised version was passed, which strengthened requirements and applied to a broader range of organizations.
The Employment Equity Act specifically relates to four broad demographic groups:
- Aboriginal people—First Nations or Indigenous individuals.
- “Visible minorities”—people whose ethnicity or skin color may characterize them as a minority in Canadian society.
- People with disabilities, which can include physical, mental, and learning disabilities.
Employers who are affiliated with a federal undertaking or business and who have more than 100 employees must design an employee equity plan under this policy. This spans a broad range of industries, from airlines to banks. Specific public sector employers like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are also covered.
Currently, the Centre for Wellness, Inclusion and Diversity oversees programs and initiatives in the public sector.
Further, federally regulated employers in the private sector must report annually on diversity in their workplace. They must also specify steps they have taken to increase the representation of the above four groups. The Legislated Employment Equity Program (LEEP) outlines these requirements.
These policies appear to be working: 11.5% of public sector employees in executive roles identify as visible minorities. And women hold 51.% of executive roles in federal agencies.
The U.S. has equal employment opportunity (EEO) and affirmative action legislation designed to address employment equity. The United States Civil Rights Center and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs handle EEO monitoring.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination. It also created the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act gave the EEOC enforcement authority. Related legislation includes the following, as Cornell Legal Information Institute notes:
- Equal Pay Act of 1963
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
- Civil Rights Act of 1991
Most private employers, government agencies, educational institutions, and various other organizations must adhere to these laws.
How to Achieve Employment Equity
Apart from legal requirements, creating an employment equity policy is essential for any organization. As mentioned, it will help ensure the most qualified people rise to the top. This begins with designing an employment equity strategy that outlines protocols, programs, and practices.
Designing an Employment Equity Plan
An employment equity plan contains numerous components. How can you design this plan? Let’s walk through it one section at a time, discussing best practices to include.
The establishment of a diverse recruitment board is the number-one step to diverse recruitment. Also make decisions based on an objective set of criteria. And remember that a strong talent acquisition program doesn’t just start recruiting when a dire need arises. Rather, recruiters reach out to passive candidates proactively and start cultivating relationships.
Implementing a standardized pay structure is essential to employment equity. Reassess every employee’s salary and make upward adjustments as needed. Make sure employees from marginalized groups are not earning less than employees from privileged groups. Base new hires’ salaries on this structure as well.
Hold diversity workshops on a regular basis. But be careful not to ask diverse employees to take on the emotional labor of teaching others about their experiences (unless they want to, of course). Instead, bring in subject matter experts on an array of topics. Employment equity workshops could tackle subjects like avoiding tokenism and holding more inclusive meetings, for instance.
Hold sessions tailored to marginalized employees as well. Marginalized employees may benefit from discussing coping strategies as a group. Hearing their experiences of microaggressions in the workplace reflected by others can be validating, for instance.
Such sessions could be facilitated by a licensed therapist with strong DEI experience, as HBR suggests. With the right guidance, they can provide a safer space for healing from racial trauma and other negative experiences, which are important to employment equity.
Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities
Design your workplace to eliminate barriers to people with disabilities. Then, consider the additional accommodations you can make as needed. And put them in writing.
Most Canadian employers have “duty to accommodate” policies outlining steps they will take to accommodate employees with disabilities, for instance.
Why implement a standardized policy on accommodations? It will help ensure fairness when hiring, as you’ll know whether you can accommodate a candidate’s needs. In other words, your decision won’t be based on a subjective judgment call in the moment. And it will ensure employees receive the support they deserve, which goes a long way in terms of employment equity.
Family Care Accommodations
Make appropriate accommodations for family care as well. Policies should allow women (and all parents) to return to their jobs after parental leave. This will help ensure their career—and salary—continues to progress. A policy should explicitly state that taking family leave must not affect promotional decisions.
Further, leaders should receive guidance on how to fairly make recommendations for promotion when qualified candidates have recently taken leave.
Importantly, women are also more likely to become caregivers for aging parents. So, policies should also accommodate this need.
Make accommodations for religious practices like holidays as well. Let employees know that they can use paid-time-off benefits for their holidays of choice.
Provide all employees with equal training and learning opportunities. Create a general plan illustrating the types of training they should have access to at different stages. Further, encourage them to make full use of these options.
Make sure employees from diverse groups are paired with an appropriate mentor. Don’t just expect these partnerships to happen organically—pair employees with more experienced people they can learn from.
The mentor doesn’t need to share the same background. In fact, building a relationship with a mentor from a more privileged background can help open doors. Also, it may be mutually beneficial. But make sure employees are receiving the support they need from the mentor. If the relationship doesn’t feel comfortable or beneficial, pair them with someone else.
HR should also create clear channels for addressing any issues related to equity. Employees should know exactly who to contact to remediate a potential problem. Moreover, they should feel encouraged to speak up.
Determine your KPIs for evaluating success. Then establish baseline metrics before launching your plan. For each KPI, set numeric goals to strive for. (SHRM suggests setting a numeric range that represents “barely successful,” “moderately successful,” and “very successful.”) Then, you can clearly evaluate your plan’s success.
Collect data on turnover, recruitment, engagement, and advancement. Do employees from particular groups have a higher rate of turnover during their first year? Investigate why, so you can address the issue and track your success.
Gather data from the following sources:
- Historic retention data
- Engagement and goal-tracking software
- Exit interviews
- Stay interviews
- Employee surveys
- Use of employee perks and benefits, like flexible hours
The right tools can assist with tracking success and making adjustments as needed. Performance management software can help monitor engagement, for example. Analytical tools can measure success across a broad range of KPIs. Also, this software can generate polished reports to share with organizational leadership.
A well-crafted employment equity plan will prepare all employees to succeed at higher levels. You’ll improve job satisfaction, engagement, and retention as you enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. By doing so, you’ll continue to strengthen your employer reputation, boosting recruitment in turn.
Everyone will benefit, from employees and leaders to other stakeholders, including the clients you serve.
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