In late 2023, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) unveiled its 2024-2028 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP), an important document for employers to be aware of because it delineates the areas the EEOC will focus on to ensure compliance with federal discrimination laws in the forthcoming years. The SEP aims not only to shape legislative development but also to foster employer adherence to federal employment discrimination laws, with any charge pertaining to these focus areas receiving priority treatment.

The SEP outlines several key focus areas, including:

  • Addressing discrimination, bias, and hate targeting religious minorities, racial or ethnic groups, and LGBTQ+ individuals.
  • Expanding the scope of vulnerable and underserved worker priority to include workers who may be unaware of their rights under equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, may be reluctant or unable to exercise their legally protected rights or have historically been underserved by federal employment discrimination protections.
  • Updating the emerging issues priority to safeguard workers affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, including under the new Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and other EEO laws; addressing employment discrimination linked to the long-term effects of COVID-19 symptoms; and technology-related employment discrimination.
  • Highlighting the continued underrepresentation of women and workers of color in certain industries and sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, finance, tech and other STEM fields.
  • Advancing equal pay for all workers by combatting pay discrimination based on sex, other protected bases, and intersections thereof, including addressing policies hindering equal pay.
  • Recognizing employers’ increased use of technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, in job advertisements, applicant recruitment, hiring processes, and other employment decisions.
  • Preserving access to the legal system by addressing overly broad waivers, releases, nondisclosure agreements or nondisparagement agreements when they restrict workers’ ability to obtain remedies for civil rights violations.

It is important for employers to be aware of the SEP because it provides guidance to employers regarding what compliance efforts they need to focus on now and in the coming years. For example, many employers are now using technology to assist them with the recruiting and hiring process. Some of this technology includes recruitment and hiring software that uses algorithms to review applications. Under the focus of the current SEP, the EEOC is going to subject an employer using this type of software to greater scrutiny. Charges alleging failure to hire individuals from protected classes due to technology usage will be high-priority for the EEOC.

To ensure compliance, employers should maintain well-written, easily understandable, and legally compliant handbooks encompassing all employment policies, processes, and procedures. Employers should also make sure that they have up to date job descriptions that reflect all expectations and incudes qualifications that are necessary to succeed. Given the EEOC’s emphasis on advancing equal pay, it’s advisable to include pay ranges in job descriptions. This not only enhances pay transparency but also prevents inequity in salaries offered to certain applicants based on protected characteristics or past discrimination.

Companies must ensure compliance not just at the end of employment but also throughout the hiring and onboarding phases. Errors made at the beginning of the employment relationship can be just as harmful to a company as errors made at the end of an employment relationship. Regular review and updating of hiring processes, careful selection of technology to prevent discrimination, and comprehensive annual training covering company policies, harassment, discrimination, and relevant state and federal laws are essential steps for companies to uphold federal discrimination laws.