Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) refers to various laws that prohibit certain and specific types of job discrimination at work in order to ensure equal opportunity for employees. Workplace discrimination is a serious matter, and one that occurs more often than we may think it does. Still, for those who experience discrimination, there are protection measures and ways to report and fight against such employment discrimination.
This article provides an overview of Equal Employment Opportunity, including the laws that prohibit workplace discrimination at federal, state, and local levels. It is these laws that make sure employers issue equal opportunity statements during their hiring, which is often how employees first come to understand the concept of EEO.
At California Sexual Harassment Attorney, we have many years of experience ensuring Equal Employment Opportunity across the State of California. If you think you are the victim of workplace discrimination, understand your rights and consult with professional legal experts. The following information is intended as a resource and cannot be used as legal advice.
Defining discrimination in the workplace
Workplace discrimination refers to any unwelcome or unfavorable treatment an employee experiences as a result of his or her sex, race, color, religion, age, national origin, gender, or disability. It is illegal for an employer to use these factors as a reason for or against action in a number of employment situations, such as the application process and hiring, firing or terminating, promoting, referrals, and other employee opportunities.
Discrimination is an umbrella term under which many behaviors and actions are deemed offensive and unwelcome based on the situation. For example, harassment is considered a type of workplace discrimination.
Importantly, workplace discrimination is not limited only to the hiring or firing of an employee. Any aspect of employment, from application through termination and any job-related situation like salary, benefits, safety, etc., can fall under discrimination.
Examples of work discrimination
Workplace discrimination is a spectrum of actions, behaviors, and non-actions. If any of the following factors are the reason for mistreatment, it can be considered discrimination:
- Race, ethnicity, skin color, or national origin
- Sex or gender (male and female, with select added protection, which California extends to non-gender binary individuals)
- Disability, whether mental, physical, or otherwise
- Relationship to or with someone who may experience discrimination
- Pregnancy and parenthood
- Genetic information
Some examples of workplace discrimination include:
- Stating or suggesting ideal or preferred candidates in job advertisements and recruitment materials
- Excluding applicants
- Denying specific employees compensation or benefits
- Withholding internal opportunities
- Paying different salaries to employees who are otherwise equal (same position, same responsibilities, same skills or experience, etc.)
- Denying use of facilities, such as the gym, parking lot, cafeteria, etc.
- Laying off, firing, or demoting specific employees
- Making assumptions about an employee based on any of the above factors
- Assuming incapable any employee who may have a disability
- Harassing in the workplace, whether by superiors and supervisors or colleagues
- Retaliating against employees who make internal complaints or “whistle blow” to oversight agencies about employer practices, often regarding safety, compensation, or discrimination in the workplace
Who prohibits and protects against workplace discrimination?
There are many laws that prohibit workplace discrimination.
The first federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination is Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII makes illegal any discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, and national origin. Additional laws protect against further workplace discrimination, including on the basis of age, mental or physical disability, genetic information, pregnancy and parenthood, and more.
At the federal level, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversees and investigates and federally-defined discrimination in the workplace.
In the State of California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) extends protection against workplace discrimination on added factors including gender and gender identity, language, sexual orientation, and more.
The role of the U.S. Department of Labor
In the United States, the Department of Labor is the de facto department responsible for the well-being of employees as well as various work and labor situations, including time and money standards, benefits, occupational safety, and more. The Department of Labor is a cabinet-level department, meaning they report directly to the President and the Executive Branch.
Regarding equal employment opportunity, the Department of Labor has two agencies that monitor and enforce EEO:
- The Civil Rights Center, which manages and enforces equal employment opportunity in federally financially-assisted programs, and makes sure equal opportunity is extended to all applicants and employees of the Department of Labor.
- The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs oversees all employers who work on federal contracts and subcontracts.
Though often considered part of the Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is actually an independent federal agency who uses administrative and judicial enforcement of federal civil rights laws to promote equal opportunity in the workplace.
What is Title VII?
In the 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among many labor law and civil rights decisions encompassed in the Act, one section that is known as Title VII outlawed discrimination based on five factors:
- National origin
Before the 1964 act passed, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order in March 1962 that required government contractors to act affirmatively to ensure that applicants and employees are not discriminated against on those five initial characteristics. A committee aligned with this executive order was formed. The creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was built into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As of 1965, the EEOC has been an independent federal agency responsible for ensuring equal opportunity.
Initially, the processes and entities to enforce Title VII and the Civil Rights Act were weak. Over time, the law has gained substantial legal reinforcement through courts and additional statutes, and it is today held up as the preeminent law protecting employees from workplace discrimination. Eight years later, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 added further protection that prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational institutions and programs that receive any funding from the federal government.
Additional laws that further prohibit discrimination at work include the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, often known as the ADA.
What is the EEOC?
The EEOC, short for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is a federal agency that is wholly independent of the Department of Labor. Established in 1965, the EEOC provides assistance to applicants and employees in many areas, including state and local governments, the majority of private employers, educational institutions, employment agencies, and labor unions or organizations. Importantly, the EEOC is the body responsible for investigating allegations of discrimination in the workplace. They are the committee who is responsible, at a federal level, for overseeing and responding to claims of illegal discrimination, as laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Generally speaking, any employer with 15 or more employees is subject to oversight from the EEOC. All employees are able to file a complaint with the EEOC, regardless of whether they are the victims of discrimination. For example, a non-victim may make a report that other colleagues are victims of workplace discrimination.
The EEOC requires employers across the country to report varied information about their employers. In particular, this includes data from racial and ethnic categories, in order to prevent related discrimination. As such, the employer may gather this information – such as whether an employee or job candidate identifies as a number of racial categories – yet cannot use this information in the hiring. Instead, that information is often blindly recorded and passed along to the EEOC.
Filing a complaint with the EEOC
Filing a complaint regarding workplace discrimination is not a decision to take lightly. Instead, it has important legal and financial consequences, both for the complainant as well as the employer. An experienced labor law attorney can guide you through your case and provide the best legal counsel.
Once you file a formal complaint with the EEOC, there are a few steps that will happen. The EEOC aims to complete their investigations within six months.
- The EEOC asks for a statement of position from the employer and formally requests information that is relevant to the case, including personnel files, anti-discriminatory employer policies, and human resources (HR) documents.
- The EEOC can ask the employer to make other employees available for fact-finding interviews. The employer can legally say no, but the EEOC has the right to contact employees regardless of the employer’s permission or knowledge.
- The EEOC uses the gathered information to determine whether the case warrants further action. If so, they move into the formal investigation. In this litigation state, they can subpoena additional documents and employees for giving statements.
- The employer may have the opportunity to avoid a full-scale EEOC investigation by aiming for a resolution, wither through mediation or a settlement with the complainant. In the case that no settlement is reached and/or the EEOC determines that mediation is not a sufficient resolution, the EEOC can sue the employer.
- Importantly, even if the EEOC chooses not to sue, the complainant still may.
- If the EEOC and/or the complainant sue the employer, the employer may be subject to any of the following fines and situations:
- Providing relief to employees who were discriminated against, such as:
- Paying back wages
- Reinstating employees
- Reimburse legal and court costs
- Paying compensatory and punitive damages to the complainant, which are capped at certain levels depending on the size of the employer.
- Paying damages that are limited to the complainant’s lost wages
- Poor publicity for the employer
- Providing relief to employees who were discriminated against, such as:
State of California protection from discrimination
The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) further protects employees in California from workplace discrimination. The FEHA is overseen and enforced by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
The DFEH provides additional protection that federal laws do not provide, including discrimination on the basis of:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender expression and gender identity
- Military and veteran status
- English-only policies and language discrimination (as in, an employer may not limit employees to only speaking English unless business requires it)
The FEHA also extends protection to some smaller companies that are not encompassed in Title VII.
Filing a complaint with the DFEH
Whereas the EEOC is a federal body, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing can handle and process discrimination claims within the State of California. An experienced lawyer can help decide whether you can and should file a report with the EEOC or the DFEH.
The EEOC and DFEH do have a work sharing agreement. That is, they cooperate in order to process claims. This agreement means that it is unnecessary to file a claim with both entities, and if you want to ensure both are involved, you can indicate “cross filing” when making your claim.
Can I file a complaint at any time with either the DFEH or the EEOC?
No. The EEOC covers certain types of workplace discrimination for employers of certain sizes, and the DFEH extends those factors as well as provides protection for some smaller size employers.
Further, there are time limits to when you can file a formal complaint. The EEOC states that you must file within 300 days of the date of the discriminatory action. In California, you have up to 1 year (365 days) of the discrimination.
If you believe you are the victim of discrimination in the workplace, speaking with a lawyer can provide clarity and insight into your situation. California Sexual Harassment Attorney provides expert legal counsel for employees across the State of California. We are knowledgeable with labor laws at the federal, state, and local levels and we can guide you through determining whether you are the subject of workplace harassment. Get in touch with our sexual harassment lawyer today at 800-905-1856 to learn about your options.