Equal Opportunity Policies in the Military

Those who serve in the military come from a wide range of social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and it’s the policy of the Department of Defense (DoD) to ensure "opportunities for all DoD personnel to rise to as high a level of responsibility as their abilities allow."

The U.S. military is the largest agency of the federal government. In addition to its size, the military also has a workforce that is becoming increasingly diverse. Among its active duty members, for example, minorities constitute just over 30% of the force and women over 14%.

 This focus on abilities, rather than background, is designed to create a culture where recruitment, professional development, and promotions are all based on merit. This is where the military's equal opportunity program comes into play, which consists of the following two programs:

  • Military Equal Opportunity (EO): This is for service members and their families and incorporates the chain of command.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO): This is for DoD civilian employees and is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

What is the Military Equal Opportunity Process?

Unlike many civilian employers, the military is allowed to discriminate in some areas based on the nature of its work. For example, it doesn't hire or retain those who, because of their age, disability, or physical fitness are unable to perform military duties, which can take place in harsh environments including combat zones. However while the military may be able to engage in these forms of lawful discrimination, it is prohibited by law from discriminating on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Gender (note that some direct combat positions have historically been off-limits to women, but these policies may be changing).

Under the EO program, service members who believe they have experienced discrimination have the option of submitting two types of EO complaints: (1) informal; and (2) formal. Informal complaints do not have to be written and are not subject to any reporting deadlines. However, formal complaints must be written and typically involve a sworn statement from the service member. The Army, for example, uses the Equal Opportunity Complaint Form which includes an oath and affidavit.

Formal complaints also have strict reporting deadlines and normally trigger an administrative investigation which also has set deadlines. Some services, such as the Army, also require commanders to prepare a written reprisal plan showing steps taken to protect the complainant, any witnesses and the alleged perpetrator.

With either an informal or formal complaint, service members are encouraged to first use their chain of command to resolve complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment. Most units will have a designated, full-time EO officer who is the point of contact for all EO complaints and who is responsible for conducting unit-wide training. However, if the complaint involves the chain of command, a service member can also use alternate reporting channels such as a chaplain, a judge advocate (a military lawyer) or the DoD's Inspector General.

Also, it's important to note that, while incidents of sexual harassment are addressed through the EO process, those involving sexual assault are addressed through the UCMJ and will involve criminal investigations.

What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Process?

Civilians who work for the DoD have access to the EEO complaint system to address any incidents of discrimination or unfair treatment. Since DoD civilians do not face the same workplace requirements as service members, more categories of prohibited discrimination apply, These categories include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Workplace reprisals

To file an EEO complaint, a DoD civilian employee must first meet with an EEO official or counselor within 45 days of the incident. The EEO official will advise the employee of his or her rights and conduct an informal inquiry. The EEO official then sends a final notice after the inquiry, after which the employee has a deadline to decide whether to file a formal complaint.

If a formal complaint is filed, the respective military branch has 180 days to investigate all of the claims. At that point the employee has the right to either: (1) ask the agency to issue a determination as to whether discrimination occurred; or (2) request a hearing before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After a decision is made by the agency or by the EEOC, you will have the opportunity to appeal your case and, if required, file a claim in federal court.

Additional Resources

If you're interested in learning more about equal opportunity policies in the military, including specific deadlines and the rights and remedies available to service members and civilian employees, you should speak with a military attorney or a civilian attorney that specializes in military law.

For more information about employment discrimination in general, see FindLaw's section on "Employment Discrimination."

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