Equal employment opportunity has been a right since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it a law.
This law protects employees from discrimination due to their race, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability and genetic information. Protection extends to every part of the employment process, including recruitment, training, promotion, retention and discipline.
To comply with this law, employers would be wise to develop a strong diversity plan, a complaint reporting system and a comprehensive investigation process. To help with the last piece, this article details the six steps of conducting an EEO investigation.
Don’t risk missing a key step in your EEO investigation, download our free EEO Investigation Checklist.
Why Investigate EEO-Related Complaints?
Discrimination complaints often lead to workplace tension, damaging employee relations and the company’s reputation. And if the complaint is mishandled the consequences can be worse, potentially resulting in a lawsuit.
EEO investigations can be demanding and burdensome. To conduct this investigation properly, you’ll need extensive knowledge of applicable laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act and more. You will also have to invest a great deal of time looking at office practices and interviewing involved parties.
The benefits of investigating discrimination allegations fully are worth the time and effort. The company looks good and employees stay happy. It lowers the risk of costly fines and court battles from government agencies, potentially saving millions in litigation costs.
Conducting an EEO Investigation
There are four key things to remember while conducting an EEO investigation.
- Always take the complaint seriously.
- Never jump to a formal investigation without offering an informal alternative.
- Have a careful strategy for dealing with the complaint and follow it.
- Use what you’ve learned to improve your workplace.
With that in mind, here are the six steps of conducting an EEO investigation.
1. The Initial Complaint
An employee comes to you claiming unequal employment opportunities. She states that the sales manager is discriminating against women and that she believes his promotion processes are illegal. What do you do?
Once the employee has reported the issue, begin to gather facts. Discuss the situation believed to be discriminatory. Listen to the complainant and document everything, including the names of any witnesses you should interview or evidence you should collect.
If the discriminatory behavior is unintentional, try to resolve the matter informally. Workplace mediation or an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program can be effective. Settling complaints voluntarily will avoid the long and sometimes grueling process of a formal investigation.
If the complainant chooses to attempt an informal resolution, follow the company’s processes for that. If the complainant chooses not to, invite them to file a formal written complaint. Once the complaint has been filed, begin conducting the EEO investigation.
An Important Tip
Be open to hearing complaints. While it’s difficult to learn that discrimination is an issue in your office, it’s harmful to silence or retaliate against the complainant. A victim who sees you have no interest in their allegations is more likely to escalate the issue to a government department.
2. Explain the Process
Complainants want to know what they’re getting into by filing a report. Are these investigations confidential? Will the accused know who filed the complaint? How long will this process take? Can you appeal the findings?
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Assure the complainant that their allegations are being taken seriously, that the investigation will be confidential to the fullest extent possible and that the company is committed to fair employment practices. Remember that the complainant may be fearful.
3. Begin the Investigation
Consider the complainant’s statement and identify the law or laws the allegations would break if true. Look back at previous complaints filed by the victim or made against the accused. Identifying a pattern might speed up and simplify the investigation.
If you believe the circumstances described by the complainant do not break any laws, schedule a meeting to discuss your decision. If you believe the circumstances are illegal and do require a full inquiry, develop an investigation plan.
4. Gather the Facts and Evidence
For EEO-related allegations, it’s important to look at all the relevant information for context. You’ll want to identify comparative information that could either justify the behavior as proper or confirm the allegations.
Depending on the specific claim, the US Department of the Treasury says to look at things such as:
- Applications for positions
- Interview notes
- Disciplinary documentation
- Time and attendance records
- Performance appraisals
- Any other comparative information
5. Conduct the Interviews
Set up interviews with anyone who might have information about the allegations. Ideally, the complainant will have provided a list of potential witnesses from whom you can learn more about the circumstances.
Start by leading the conversation. Discuss specific allegations, then let the interviewee wander. You might learn a lot. Take notes during the interviews to help create comprehensive witness statements. EEO investigations often involve a lot of “he said, she said”. To get to the bottom of it all, look for corroboration or contradiction.
6. Make a Decision
The final part of conducting an EEO investigation is coming to a decision. You’ve gathered the facts, collected the evidence, met with the witnesses and looked at all the laws. Now it’s time to decide whether discrimination occurred and draft recommendations for discipline.
If you’ve decided that discrimination did occur, make sure to not retaliate or reveal confidential information. Any action you take informally may be perceived as retaliatory, which can then be held against you.
And, no matter the outcome, follow through on any recommendations that were made.