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Equal employment opportunities: avoiding discrimination

If you run a small nonprofit in the United States, you might assume that you have too few employees to worry about discrimination laws. After all, federal laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) apply only to organizations with 15 or more employees. But even the smallest nonprofit can be sued for discrimination — in state or federal court — and end up facing costly legal defense fees.

Beyond helping you avoid potential lawsuits, developing an equal employment opportunity policy for your small nonprofit makes good business sense. It also serves as an important ethical foundation for any organization working for social justice. Here's what you need to know.

What is the EEOC?

The EEOC enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It's also illegal to discriminate against someone because he or she complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

The EEOC investigates charges of discrimination against employers covered by the law. The agency also works to prevent discrimination through outreach, education and technical assistance programs.

What federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination apply to nonprofits?

Most employers with at least 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws. In age discrimination cases, 20 employees are necessary. The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages and benefits.

Under federal employment discrimination laws, employees include:

  • People who work full-time, part-time, seasonally or on a temporary basis
  • Volunteers who, if as a result of their service, receive benefits — even if the benefits are provided by a third party — or those whose volunteer work is required for regular employment or typically leads to regular employment
  • Workers assigned to your nonprofit through a work program
  • Workers who aren't U.S. citizens, including those who are undocumented

Keep in mind that state and local discrimination laws might also apply to your nonprofit. For example, some states prohibit discrimination on the basis of:

  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity or cross-dressing
  • Legal off-duty conduct, such as smoking
  • Whistleblowing
  • Taking leave to vote, serve on a jury or be a witness in a legal proceeding

Check your state and local government websites for specific information.

How can small nonprofits ensure avoidance of discrimination in the workplace?

To help prohibit discriminatory practices within your organization, create an equal employment opportunities policy. Such a policy can help your nonprofit:

  • Promote a culture of diversity and inclusiveness
  • Improve recruitment and retention
  • Avoid illegal discrimination
  • Take action against staff who don't uphold your organization's principles

If you're not sure how to create a policy, start by looking at those created by other nonprofits. Here are examples from GuideStar and The Nature Conservancy. You might also start with a sample policy statement — such as this example created by the Long Island Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University — and tailor it to your nonprofit's needs.

Once you've created a policy for your nonprofit, regularly review and update it, share it with your entire staff, and train all supervisors and senior staff on how to apply it. Have your organization's leadership set an example by championing the policy and enforcing it.

What are some best practices for ensuring compliance with an equal employment opportunity policy?

To help your organization comply with your equal employment opportunity policy, consider these best practices:

  • Set job qualification standards. Establish minimum educational and experience-oriented qualifications for every position in your organization.
  • Be transparent. Make employment decisions in a transparent manner. Document how decisions are made.
  • Conduct self-assessments. Self-assessments can help you monitor your employment decisions.
  • Remove barriers. If you're recruiting new employees through word-of-mouth within a workplace that isn't diverse, you might be inadvertently creating barriers to equal opportunity employment. Look for ways to widen and diversify your pool of applicants.
  • Monitor hiring, compensation and performance appraisals. Check for patterns of discrimination or discriminatory practices.
  • Provide training and development. Give your staff opportunities for growth and advancement. Provide ongoing training at all levels about your company's equal employment opportunity values, policies and procedures.
  • Prize communication. Encourage employees to talk and work together to resolve disputes.
  • Be consistent. Investigate employee complaints thoroughly and consistently.

Creating an equal employment opportunity policy can go a long way toward helping your nonprofit prohibit workplace discrimination. For continued guidance and updates on changes in the law, regularly check the EEOC's website as well as your state and local governments' websites.

This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

People of Our Everyday Life: Can nonprofit organizations discriminate? by Van Thompson

National Council of Nonprofits: Managing nonprofit employees

NCVO: Equal opportunities policies

Nonprofit Risk Management Center: EEOC resources offer valuable help by Jennifer Chandler Hauge

Volunteers Insurance Service: Even for the smallest nonprofits, there are suits that fit (2013)

Legal Information Institute: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission



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