What Is an EEOC Complaint?

EEOC complaints are handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the body responsible for investigating discrimination complaints based on religion, race, national origin, color, age, sex, and disability. 

A company with more than 14 employees is subject to the EEOC stepping in. Every employee has the right to file an EEOC complaint, not just those who feel they have been discriminated against.

How Does an EEOC Complaint Hurt an Employer?

Once the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives a complaint that an employer illegally discriminated against its workers, that employer may be in for a long period of legal issues.

During the ensuing months, time-consuming official requests are made to acquire more information in addition to or in the form of:

  • Intrusive investigations
  • Large legal bills
  • Negative publicity
  • Expensive damages (if the complaint is upheld)

Once the EEOC follows up with a formal request, the employer supplies documents and other information relevant to the case when a worker files a complaint. These items include copies of HR policies and personnel files. The EEOC staff may also visit the office, which may be disruptive to the company and its operations.

When visiting, the EEOC staff may ask the employer for employee interviews. The EEOC can also contact employees outside of work without the employer's permission. 

EEOC complaints are meant to protect employees from discrimination. The employer will get the opportunity to tell the story from their perspective when the EEOC asks for a “statement of position.” But even so, these complaints can cost employers time, effort, and money. 

How Serious Is an EEOC Complaint?

The activities carried out by the EEOC are meant to collect information and figure out if the complaint requires further action. From there, the process will turn into a formal investigation, which can cost more money and time. A typical EEOC investigation period lasts six months, but each case varies.

During this time, the employer may be prohibited from destroying any documents without prior permission, and they should hire a lawyer for counsel. 

Robin Shea, a partner in a law firm, says employers can influence an investigation, especially when not working with a lawyer. By unintentionally admitting a violation occurred or providing too many details, employers moving forward without a lawyer can turn even the most trivial complaint into a full-blown investigation.

EEOC Complaints and Litigation Costs

Employers can avoid an EEOC investigation if they agree to mediate or settle the complaint. This will likely result in the employer changing their company procedures and policies. They may also have to compensate anyone who complained. However, employers don't have to admit liability or guilt, and such agreements can remain private.

The EEOC may sue the employer if the employer does not mediate, or if the EEOC determines the case goes beyond what mediation could offer and is far more serious. The employees who filed the complaint can still sue, even if the EEOC decides not to. Regardless of who sues, litigation proceedings are a considerable cost for the employer and can lead to bad publicity.

Indemnifications and Penalties from EEOC Complaints

What happens when the EEOC determines an employer is guilty? 

It depends on the nature of the complaint, but may include paying back wages, reinstating an employee’s job, or giving them a promotion. Additionally, employers will be required to pay the complainants' court and legal fees. And if there’s a trial, it can get even more expensive. Damages will be awarded to any employees who filed complaints by the court, as follows:

  • 15 to 100 employees: $50,000 per person
  • 101 to 200 employees: $100,000 per person
  • 201 to 300 employees: $200,000 per person
  • More than 300 employees: $300,00 per person

For the Employee: How to File an EEOC Charge of Discrimination

When you face workplace harassment or discrimination, your first step should be expressing concerns internally, using the procedures detailed in your employee handbook, or other policies outlined in the onboarding process. 

When your complaints aren't met, or you feel unsatisfied, you may file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, or a similar agency in your state, to handle these proceedings.

The EEOC has a well-defined process for handling complaints. It usually operates through a network of offices and places strict deadlines for complaint filing, typically ranging from around 90 days and up to almost a year. Employees are advised to pay close attention to the deadline when deciding to file against something they believe is illegal or discriminatory in the workplace.

If you think your rights have been violated, consider filing discrimination claims with the EEOC. They will contact you and your employer within ten days. Shortly after, they will start to investigate your claim. If they find your employer violated anti-discrimination laws, you have two options: a settlement with the employer or taking the case to court.

You may also file a complaint as a U.S. citizen employed by a U.S.-based company that operates abroad. Simply file your charge(s) with the EEOC district office in the city or state closest to your employer's U.S.-based headquarters.

What to Do Before Filing Charges

Things you will be asked when filing:

  • Personal information, including name, telephone number, and address
  • Your employer’s name, telephone number, and address
  • The phone number of employees connected to your employer, employment agency, or any other entity allegedly part of the investigation
  • A short description of the alleged violation
  • Date(s) of when the discrimination/alleged violation(s) took place

If you are a federal employee, look at the agency's Overview of the Federal Sector EEO Complaint Process. Note that the EEOC does not process discrimination charges online. The EEOC's online assessment tool is designed to help determine whether filing charges with the agency is the best course of action.

Where to File an EEOC Complaint

Complaints can be filed at local equal employment opportunity agency offices. These are state and local agencies (not federal) that are official representatives of the EEOC. A state that has its own equal employment opportunity laws will be allowed 300 days after the act of discrimination occurred to file the complaint. A state that does not have its own equal employment opportunity laws only has 180 days to file.

Filing a Title VII Lawsuit

When you file your discrimination claim with the EEOC, be aware that the agency pursues only a small fraction of the charges it receives. If the EEOC does not act on your complaint within 180 days, you are responsible for requesting a right-to-sue letter that authorizes you to file a lawsuit in federal court against the offending employer.

Once you receive the right-to-sue letter, you have only a short period (90 days) to file a lawsuit, so be mindful of the deadlines for the Title VII process. The EEOC's out-of-pocket expenses are limited by law to $5,000 per lawsuit—thousands of dollars less than it typically costs to take an employment discrimination case to court.

Time Limits for Filing Charges

If you are an employee experiencing discrimination from your employer, you are advised to contact the EEOC immediately. You’ll have less than a year (300 days) to file a complaint. 

Tips for Dealing With the EEOC

Keep these things in mind to get your claim through the EEOC bureaucracy in the most efficient manner:

  • Be vigilant and check in with the EEOC to learn more and discuss your case.
  • Be assertive and bring any additional EEOC issues to the attention of whoever is helping you with your case.
  • Read—and reread—any fine print to be sure to give a detailed look before signing anything.

Keep options open when filing for an EEOC complaint. Keep in mind that you still have the ability to try to solve the issue(s) at hand on your own or go through the complaint procedure suggested by the company.

Retaliation for Discrimination Complaints

Whether they file a complaint with a state civil rights commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, many worry their employer will seek retribution after since they're not above discriminating or allowing discrimination. The law prohibits this type of retaliation.

Grounds for discrimination complaints are strong when an employee was fired due to his or her race, or denied an accommodation for his or her disability. If you were denied a promotion due to your age or harassed because of your religion, you may win or lose your claim.

The EEOC and other civil rights enforcement agencies make it a high priority to protect the process’s integrity. Any company can be prosecuted for seeking retribution. 

Any person that filed a discrimination complaint should be careful to not alter their behavior. A common fear is that their employer might now be "afraid of them" and can take this opportunity to let them go or fire them, for example. In the aftermath of a complaint, both sides will need to monitor behavior more closely, and any and all actions will be more carefully documented during this time.

What to Do If Retaliated Against

Should you decide to exercise your rights under the anti-discrimination laws and your employer responds negatively toward you for doing so, you can take action in return. If the complaint was made internally within the company, first talk to the person who took your original complaint, or speak directly with the company's HR department.

When you file your charge of retaliation, you need to review the incident (and include when it happened and who the responsible person was). Give as much detail as possible.

What Is Retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when an employee has been discriminated against because they filed a complaint.

Employees are protected from retaliation or from participating in an investigation when it comes to harassment or discrimination. For example, an employer may not fire an employee simply because the employee reaches out to an EEOC investigator or supports a colleague's complaint against discrimination at the company.

EEOC Actions

Once the charge is filed, the EEOC can respond in a number of ways. They will ask your employer to respond to your allegations and might investigate your claims or send you and your employer to mediation. Mediation is an amicable step to resolve the dispute informally, as is trying to broker a settlement directly with your employer.

If the EEOC doesn't resolve the problem with one of the above methods, it can choose to file a lawsuit against the employer for you.

Common Reasons for Not Filing Complaints

Here are some of the most frequently heard explanations:

  • “It takes too much time.” If a case is hard-fought and goes to federal trial, it can take years (even on appeal), though few cases run that course.
  • "I don't want to be seen as a whiner." An employee who doesn't believe in anti-discrimination laws will often have this perspective.
  • "Even after what I've been through, I don't want to hurt my boss." Often, employees tend to be scared to hurt their boss, and don’t want to file a complaint against their supervisors.
  • "I don't want to be disloyal to my company." Correcting unfairness ultimately will make an employer more effective by ending a bad corporate practice.
  • "I don't have, or can't afford, a lawyer." Some employees simply might not have the funds to work with a lawyer.

People have been advised to come up and report illegal discrimination. However, some groups appear even more cautious than others, like immigrant groups or Asian Pacific Americans, who file discrimination complaints at a lower rate than others.

Schedule a Consultation With a Civil Rights Attorney

It's difficult to take action for your civil liberties and civil rights violations on your own. When you feel these liberties and rights have been violated, you should talk to an attorney to get a professional opinion. An experienced civil rights attorney knows the differences between these basic rights and can help you with a possible claim.

If you need help with EEOC complaints or the filing process, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers on its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law, and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.

​​How to File an EEOC Complaint: FAQs

How serious is an EEOC complaint?

An EEOC complaint can be very serious, as it can cost employers time, money, and effort. If the complaint is taken to court, it can be an extremely costly affair for a business – and it can also damage its reputation. Not all EEOC complaints are taken to court, though, as some may end amiably, with a settlement or mediation. 

What is an EEOC complaint?

An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint is a legal document detailing an employee’s allegations of discrimination or harassment in the workplace. It is typically filed with the EEOC, a federal agency that enforces equal employment opportunity laws and processes discrimination complaints.