The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also known as the EEOC, is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal for employers to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. While their main headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., they have 53 field offices across the United States. Their mission is to: Prevent and remedy unlawful employment discrimination and advance equal opportunity for all in the workplace.
Employees who believe that they have been discriminated against at work may file a “Charge of Discrimination” with the EEOC. All of the laws enforced by the EEOC (read the second article in this series), except for the Equal Pay Act, require employees to file this form before he/she may file a job discrimination lawsuit, against an employer. In addition, an individual, organization, or agency may file a charge on behalf of another person in order to protect the aggrieved person’s identity. Further instructions for filing a claim may be found on the EEOCs website. Federal employees and job applicants have similar protections, but a different complaint process which may also be found on the EEOCs website. Employees who file charges must remember that there are time limits for filing a charge and should refer to the EEOCs website for additional information.
The EEOC has the authority to investigate charges of discrimination against employers who are covered by the laws that they enforce. Their role is to conduct a fair and accurate investigation to assess the allegations in the charge and then make a finding. If they find that discrimination has occurred, they will try and settle the charge. If they are not successful in settling the charge, they then have the authority to file a lawsuit to protect the rights of individuals and the interests of the public and to litigate a small percentage of their cases. When deciding to file a lawsuit, the EEOC considers several factors such as the strength of the evidence, the issues in the case, and the wider impact that the lawsuit may have on the EEOC’s efforts to combat workplace discrimination.
The EEOC also works to prevent discrimination before it occurs through outreach, education, and technical assistance for employers. In addition, the EEOC provides leadership and guidance to federal agencies on all aspects of the federal government’s equal employment opportunity program.
Employers who are considered to be covered by the EEOC include:
- Business/Private Employers – General coverage is defined as those employers who employ 15 or more employees who have worked for their organization for at least 20 calendar weeks in this year or last.
- Age Discrimination – Coverage is defined as those employers who employ 20 or more employees who worked for the organization for at least 20 calendar weeks in this year or last.
- Equal Pay Act – All employers are covered regardless of the number of employees or length of employment.
- State and Local Governments – General coverage is defined as those employers who employ 15 or more employees who have worked for the agency for at least 20 calendar weeks in this year or last.
- Age Discrimination – The state or local government agency is covered no matter how many employees that they employ.
- Equal Pay Act – Almost all state or local government agencies are covered no matter how many employees that they employ.
- Federal Government Agencies – All federal government agencies are covered no matter how many employees that they employ.
- Employment Agencies – An employment agency, e.g., temporary staffing agency, or a recruiting company, is covered no matter how many employees that they employ, if the agency regularly refers employees to employers, even if they do not receive payment for their services.
- Labor Unions and Joint Apprenticeships – Applies to all labor organizations that operate a hiring hall or have at least 15 members.
Determination as to whether an employer is considered to be a covered employer or not may be complicated. Employers who are not sure about if they are considered to be covered or not should contact their local EEOC field office. It is also important for employers to remember that if they are not covered by federal laws that there may be state or local anti-discrimination laws that they are required to follow.
Various federal laws enforced by the EEOC protect applicants and employees against employment discrimination from employers when it involves:
- Unfair treatment because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 and over), disability, or genetic information.
- Harassment by managers, coworkers, or others in the workplace, because of an employee’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 and over), disability or genetic information.
- Denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation that an employee may need because of their religious beliefs, or disability.
- Retaliation because an employee complained about job discrimination, or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
In addition, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibit employers from punishing applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment. Asserting these rights is called “protected activity,” and can take many forms. For example, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against applicants or employees for:
- filing or being a witness in an EEO charge, compliant, investigation, or lawsuit,
- communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment,
- answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment,
- refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination,
- resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others,
- requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice,
- asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages.
Participating in a complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. Other acts to oppose discrimination are protected as long as the employee was acting on a reasonable belief that something in the workplace may violate EEO laws, even if he/she did not use legal terminology to describe it.
Engaging in EEO activity, does not protect an employee from all discipline or an involuntary termination. Employers are free to discipline and involuntarily terminate employees if motivated by non-retaliatory and non-discriminatory reasons that would otherwise result in such consequences. However, employers are not allowed to do anything in response to EEO activity that would discourage someone from resisting or complaining about future discrimination. For example, depending upon the facts, it could be retaliation if an employer acts because of the employee’s EEO activity to:
- reprimand the employee or give a performance evaluation/appraisal that is lower that it should be,
- transfer the employee to a less desirable job,
- engage in verbal or physical abuse,
- threaten to make, or actually make reports to authorities, such as reporting immigration status or contacting the police,
- increase scrutiny,
- spread false rumors, treat a family member negatively, e.g., cancel a contract with the person’s spouse, or
- make the person’s work more difficult, e.g., punishing an employee for an EEO complaint by purposefully changing his/her work schedule to conflict with family responsibilities.
Employers are encouraged to understand whether they are a covered employer when it comes to the EEOC and the laws that they enforce and to not engage in any unlawful activities related to those laws.
For additional information on the EEOC and to determine whether a business is considered a covered employer, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.
Written By: Kristen Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP
Source: All of the information for this article was obtained from the EEOC website at