What Is the Definition of EEOC?

The definition of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), is a federal agency which administers and enforces federal laws regarding workplace discrimination in the United States. It is a federal enforcement agency charged with ensuring that employers abide by and follow laws set out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Is the EEOC?

Enforcing federal laws which make workplace discrimination illegal in the United States is the responsibility of the EEOC. This commission was formed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) as an organization within the federal government. The function of this agency is to enforce and interpret laws regarding workplace discrimination. In order to meet its objectives, the EEOC issues regulations interpreting the law, administers EEO laws for employees of the federal government, litigates cases of discrimination, and holds hearings. In addition, the EEOC receives discrimination charges from employees, researches these charges, and then tries to negotiate settlements between employers and employees.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) requires employers to ensure that promotions and employment cannot be based on someone’s religion, race, sex or national origin. Claims of discrimination in the workforce are investigated and any violators prosecuted by the EEOC.  Anti-discrimination laws that protect employees from discrimination are also implemented by the agency. Many states (and even companies) have agencies that are similar to the EEOC to handle charges of discrimination at the local level.

Federal Laws Enforced by the EEOC          

The EEOC is in charge of enforcing and interpreting most federal laws that make employment discrimination illegal (but not all of them). Title VII makes illegal discrimination in the workplace because of color, race, sex, national origin and religion. Courts have gone on to also interpret Title VII to make illegal “harassment” based on these same traits. In addition, Title VII keeps employers from retaliating against employees who make charges of discrimination or in any other way ask that their rights be observed.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

A Supreme Court case in 1976 found that showing prejudice against women who are pregnant does not necessarily defy Title VII, Congress modified the law to ensure that it reflected the view that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

Federal Laws Enforced by the EEOC

  • The Equal Pay Act. This act demands that employers pay women and men equally for doing the same work. The Equal Pay Act was adopted before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it was initially administered by the Department of Labor.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects applicants and employees with disabilities from bias and inequity. Applicants and Employees are safeguarded if they have a record of disability, have a disability, or are thought by the employer as having a disability (even if this assumption is wrong). Reasonable accommodations are required by the ADA to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Age discrimination against employees and applicants who are at least 40 is made illegal by the ADEA. The ADEA also demands employers to provide additional information to these protected older employees when they are asked to waive their right to sue for age discrimination and equal benefits for older employees. For more information on Age Discrimination go here.
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  Discrimination on the basis of genetic information is made illegal by GINA. This act also makes illegal employers collecting genetic information from or about employees, and requires them to keep any genetic information they pick up confidential.

The EEOC’s Role       

One way to fully understand the EEOC is to go to their website here.

  • Regulations and guidance. Laws passed that make discrimination illegal often require the EEOC to supply regulations that interpret and clarify the law. The EEOC also may issue regulations when important Supreme Court cases clarify the law or when a law is amended.
  • Federal employee rights. Compliance in the federal government for EEOC regulations is the responsibility of the EEOC. If a government employee complains about harassment, discrimination, or retaliation, the employee must first file a complaint with the EEOC within the agency which the employee works, which processes and investigates the charge.
  • Charge processing. The charge-handling function is the primary way most employees encounter the EEOC. The EEOC takes complaints from employees and applicants of discrimination. A legal prerequisite to filing a lawsuit is filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; employees who don’t complain to the EEOC first (and therefore give it an opportunity to process the charge) won't be allowed to sue in court.
    1. The charge is received. The EEOC evaluates the employee’s claim.  It then decides how it may proceed. If the agency concludes that it has no jurisdiction it may dismiss the charge (because of a missed deadline to file a charge or the claims don’t violate the law).
    2. The charge is investigated. The EEOC may ask the employer and employee to provide information, interview witnesses, gather documents, ask the employer and employee to provide information and even visit the place where the charges took place.
    3. A settlement of the case may be mediated by the EEOC. Mediation is the process of getting the employee and employer together with a third party to resolve the problem. If employee and employer agree, the negotiated settlement will decide the case. The agency may also issue a conclusion that either no cause exists to believe that a regulation was violated or cause exists to believe discrimination took place.
    4. The EEOC may litigate the charge on behalf of the employee. Usually, the EEOC takes a case on only if it presents important or novel topics that the EEOC wants to bring to court. The employee may want to go ahead with a lawsuit while the EEOC is still processing the charge. In this case, the employee may ask for a right to sue letter. This document affirms that the employee has met the requirement of filing a charge and may go on to court.

Complaints Against the Federal Government

Within 45 days of the alleged discriminatory action, a federal job applicant or employee must file a complaint of discrimination based on color, race, sex, national origin, age, religion, or mental or physical disability to an EEOC counselor with the applicants’ or employees’ agency. The applicant or employee may file a formal complaint within 15 days of getting notice of the right to file a complaint if that complaint cannot be solved informally.

Under 1967’s Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a complaint against federal agencies or departments are required to be filed with the director of equal employment opportunity, head of that agency, head of an EEOC field office, or other official (designated by the agency). This requirement may be skipped by federal employees if they notify the EEOC within 180 days of the discrimination, and then wait 30 days before filing a suit.

Other Activities        

Data on the employment status of members of minority groups and women are published by the EEOC. The EEOC collects information through six employment surveys.  The surveys cover apprenticeship programs, private employers, state and local governments, labor unions, secondary and elementary schools, and Colleges and Universities. The agency then tabulates data on employees' racial, ethnic, and gender statistics. The product is then distributed to federal agencies who, in turn, make it available to the community.

EEOC Cracks Down on Retaliation

Due to the stifling nature of retaliation on employees who may not want to come forward and disclose their knowledge during investigations if they think it will cost them something, the EEOC has cracked down on this phenomenon. Retaliation can vary from unlawful discharge (for example a Human Resources professional who is performing EEO functions, terminated for it) to other adverse actions. If proven, these charges can result in both financial and disciplinary damages against the employer. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance takes an assertive attitude against retaliation, using a broad interpretation of this frequently encountered type of discrimination.

Retaliation charges have greatly outnumbered race discrimination since 2009.  Now the most common basis for filing a discrimination charge is retaliation. Nearly 43% of all private-sector complaints filed in 2014 involved retaliation claims. That is two times as many as 1998, which was when the EEOC last issued retaliation guidance.

The EEOC has since explained in proposed updated guidelines that a retaliation claim must include:

  1. Employee engagement in protected activity (can be participation in EEO activity or the individual’s own opposition to discrimination)
  2. Adverse action taken by the employer
  3. A causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action

Employees do not have to be in opposition to any employer behavior to be engaged in protected activity. Employees who willingly participate in employer inquiries into EEO complaints, or even give pro-employer or neutral information about an employer violation, or employees who ask religious practices or accommodation of disability, can be involved in protected activity. For tips on creating an employee handbook that is compliant with all laws go here.     

EEO Participation

The EEOC has disagreed with past courts’ findings holding that participation in EEO activity applies to in-house company investigations only when conducted in combination with a formal EEOC complaint. The EEOC guidance stated that the agency views “participation” as including in-house complaints to human resources, company management, or else made within the employer’s in-house complaint practice before any discrimination charge is filed with the EEOC (or a state or local Fair Employment Practices Agency).

Participation in either a formal EEOC complaint or an internal investigation does not keep workers from performance evaluation. The EEOC has acknowledged that employers can continue to discipline employees who have raised an EEO complaint. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t liabilities to be considered. Some managers think that they can take a negative action against an employee if they have made a groundless complaint, but even if the complaint is groundless, the employee may still have a retaliation claim if the employment action is adverse, unless the complaint was made for some illegitimate reason or made in bad faith.  Current employees may think they are protected by simply raising any employment-related concern, and then any action taken against them can be called “retaliation” even if it isn’t termination.          

Protected Opposition         

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines state that opposition safeguards all employees, including managers and those in Human Resources. Protected opposition examples include

  • Complaining about discrimination against others or themselves.
  • Counseling an employer on EEO compliance, such as Human Resources reporting violations to leadership, or threatening to complain.
  • Reporting evidence in an employer’s internal inquiry of an EEO matter.
  • Repelling sexual advances or interceding on behalf of others.
  • Declining to comply with an order reasonably understood to be discriminatory.
  • Passive resistance, for example if a supervisor decides to not carry out a manager’s direction to put a damper on subordinates filing complaints about discrimination.
  • Asking for reasonable accommodations for religious reasons or a disability.

Punishment for discussing pay may fall under EEO laws and the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act). That issue may not be on employer’s radar. Some of the guideline’s examples of protected opposition reflect newer EEOC positions. For example, if an employee believes she is being hassled by colleagues based on her sexual orientation, and files a complaint with HR or her manager and human resources. Another example, if an employee believes she is being harassed by colleagues based on her gender, and complains to her HR department or her manager and human resources. Protected opposition applies because Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Because the EEOC’s stated position and prosecution efforts, individuals may have a reasonable belief that this type of sexual orientation discrimination is illegal as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. In protecting itself from any number of types of retaliation claims, it’s vital for an employer to show consistent enforcement of rules and for any discipline to be well-documented. It’s important that an employer has a handbook that reflects this.        

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Culture

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was organized in the 1960s when the EEOC failed to act upon the Civil Rights Act's sexual discrimination clause.

If you need help understanding the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or have any other legal concern, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law School and Yale Law School and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.