The EEOC Enforcement Agenda

Earlier this week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its updated enforcement guidance on national origin discrimination.

(The EEOC also issued two resource documents to accompany the guidance: a Q & A publication on the guidance document and a small business fact sheet designed to illustrate the guidance’s chief points in plain language, according to the organization.)

The new guidance defines national origin discrimination as “discrimination because an individual (or his or her ancestors) is from a certain place or has the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a particular national origin group.”

The documents also address Title VII’s prohibition on national origin discrimination as applied to a broad range of employment situations and highlight practices for employers to prevent discrimination, as well as discussing legal developments since 2002, when the EEOC issued the national origin discrimination compliance manual section that these new guidelines are intended to replace.

“EEOC is dedicated to advancing opportunity for all workers and ensuring freedom from discrimination based on ethnicity or country of origin,” says EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang, in a statement.

“This guidance addresses important legal developments over the past 14 years on issues ranging from human trafficking to workplace harassment. The examples and promising practices included in the guidance will promote compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws and help employers and employees better understand their legal rights and responsibilities.”

This announcement comes just weeks after the EEOC unveiled its Strategic Enforcement Plan for fiscal years 2017 through 2021. One pillar of this plan is the agency’s expanding focus on protecting immigrant and migrant workers, such as those who are Muslim or Sikh or persons of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, as well as those perceived to be members of these groups, as HRE’s Julie Cook-Ramirez noted earlier this month.

Of course, the EEOC’s new guidelines and its stated strategy for the next five years arrive almost exactly two months before the scheduled inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump, who stands to significantly shake up the agency’s agenda.

In a recent blog post at www.law360.com, law professor Michael LeRoy explains how the incoming president could very well upend the EEOC’s enforcement agenda with regard to national origin (and other forms of) discrimination.

“Trump’s popularity derives in no small measure from people who are tired of ‘political correctedness,’ ” writes LeRoy, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This concept is generally found in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations that prohibit employers from creating a ‘hostile work environment.’ ”

That term applies to sexual harassment, but racial, religious and national origin harassment as well, adds LeRoy.

“A Trump EEOC could redline ‘hostile work environment,’ thereby signaling that no federal employment policy prohibits the type of degrading language that Trump has used against women, Mexican, Muslims and other groups.”

For that matter, President Trump will have the opportunity to appoint high-ranking personnel that could in turn impact staffing decisions throughout the EEOC, potentially shifting the agency’s enforcement priorities, as Seyfarth Shaw attorneys recently pointed out.

In addition to the possibility that President Trump could designate a new EEOC chair, the agency will see General Counsel David Lopez leave at the end of 2016.

“[Lopez’s] impending departure means that President Trump will have an early opportunity to appoint his successor,” Seyfarth attorneys wrote. “These leadership changes at the highest levels of the EEOC will undoubtedly impact the direction the agency takes in the future.”

A Trump administration could also signal budgetary constraints for the EEOC, which may alter the way the agency approaches enforcement of discrimination guidelines.

“Historically, the EEOC adapted by focusing its enforcement efforts on systemic litigation, meaning targeting high-impact cases that address policies or patterns or practices that have a broad impact on a region, industry or entire class of employees or job applicants,” Seyfarth attorneys note. “The theory was that large, high-profile cases, settlements and judgments would have a greater deterrent effect, and would therefore affect a larger number of workers and industries.”

Faced with the possibility of fewer resources and new personnel, however, the EEOC of the near future could be forced to find “new and creative ways to adapt its enforcement program (and its own political viability) to the new reality.”