What Is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws regarding discrimination or harassment against a job applicant or an employee in the United States. The EEOC was formed by Congress to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has 53 other field offices throughout the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • The EEOC investigates charges brought against employers regarding discrimination against employees and job applicants.
  • It was created by Congress in 1964 to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Companies are subject to the law if they have 15 or more employees (20 or more employees for age discrimination cases).
  • The laws apply to all aspects of work, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages and benefits.

How the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Works

EEOC enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate because of a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, transgender status, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. In addition, it is against the law to discriminate against a person who complains about discrimination, who has filed a charge of discrimination, or who has participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. (In fact, 54% of charges filed with the EEOC in 2019 were for retaliation. ) Indeed, business ethics have changed considerably since the turbulent 1960s first roiled their relatively placid waters.

On June 15, 2020, in a 6-3 ruling in Bostock vs. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court determined that protections against discrimination by sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect LGBTQ workers.  Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion, stated: “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The EEOC's Authority and Role

The EEOC is vested with the authority to investigate any charges of discrimination brought against employers, who are generally subject to EEOC laws if they have at least 15 employees (in the case of age discrimination that rises to 20). Many labor unions and employment agencies fall under its jurisdiction as well.

The EEOC's role is to fairly and accurately assess allegations in the charge and then make a finding. If it finds discrimination has occurred, it will try to settle the charge. It also has the authority to file a lawsuit to protect individuals and the interests of the public.

The laws enforced by the EEOC apply to all types of work situations, processes, and functions. This includes the hiring and termination of employees, harassment among the staff or management, job training, promotions, wages, and benefits.

Another role of the EEOC is to seek to prevent discrimination before it can occur.

How Does the EEOC Prevent Discrimination?

The EEOC works on preventing workplace discrimination through outreach and a variety of education and technical assistance programs.

  • EEOC representatives make no-cost presentations (on a limited basis) to professional associations, conferences, employer groups and non-profits, explaining the mission of the EEOC, the laws it enforces, and how the charge/complaint process works.
  • Field offices have designated small business liaisons  to assist small businesses with their questions.
  • It also provides targeted information and resources for veterans with disabilities .
  • Youth@Work  is an EEOC program designed to educate young workers about their workplace rights, including informing them about real cases involving teen workers and how to file a complaint.
  • The EEOC also offers more in-depth training to employers for a fee through its EEOC Training Institute.

Employers are liable for both their own behavior and that of their staff members, even including independent contractors.

What to Do If You Feel You've Been Discriminated Against at Work

If you believe you've been discriminated against at work because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. This is a signed statement describing how an employer, union or labor organization engaged in employment discrimination. All of the laws enforced by EEOC, except for the Equal Pay Act, require you to file a charge of discrimination before you can file a job discrimination lawsuit against your employer. There are time limits. You can file a charge through the EEOC Public Portal after you submit an online inquiry and have an intake interview with an EEOC staff member.

Examples of EEOC Jurisdiction

The EEOC may specifically investigate not only employers for violations but also members of their staff accused of engaging in harassment or discrimination. For example, if a manager refuses to interview or hire qualified job candidates solely because of their ethnicity or race, then the employer can be held accountable for allowing racist behavior to persist. This can also be applied to employers who permit harassment to continue unchecked. Companies can even be held liable for independent contractors who act on their behalf.

The EEOC has filed lawsuits against companies where corrective action was not taken after derogatory slurs, threats, assaults, unwanted sexual comments, or inappropriate touching occurred in the workplace. Companies can also be penalized for not warning employees about past misconduct committed by another employee or manager with whom they are directed to work.

EEOC lawsuits might seek monetary damages, including punitive and compensatory damages and injunctive relief. In fiscal year 2019, the EEOC received 72,675 charges of workplace discrimination, with 38% of claims being allegations of discrimination based on race or color. Sexual harassment claims, which had increased 13.6% increase from 2017 to 2018, decreased 1.2% in 2019.

The EEOC is open to attempts to settle cases before the issue is investigated and possibly taken to trial. It offers a mediation procedure, an informal process in which two parties can work with a neutral mediator to see if they can reach a reconciliation of their differences. The mediator doesn’t ultimately make a determination, however, serving only to help the two parties reach a settlement on their own. If mediation fails, then the EEOC proceeds to formally investigate the complaint.