The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a five-member commission appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The EEOC was created by Congress to be the primary enforcement mechanism of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII prohibits discrimination in hiring, terms or conditions of employment, union membership and representation, and the referral of applicants by employment services. It was passed in June 1964 by strong bipartisan majorities in both houses, and signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964. Title VII specifically forbids any employer to fail to hire, discharge, or classify employees or discriminate with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment in any way that would deprive any individual of employment opportunity due to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against individuals who file charges with the EEOC or participate in EEOC investigations. Title VII applies to private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions that employ 15 or more employees. The federal government, private and public employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees for apprenticeship and training also must abide by the law.
The primary mission of the EEOC is the elimination of illegal discrimination from the workplace. In addition to enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the EEOC is charged with enforcing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Equal Pay Act, Section 501 the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and Title I, the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under Executive Order 12067, the EEOC is also charged as the lead agency on all the civil rights employment enforcement activity for the federal government. The members of the commission do not decide individual cases, and the primary enforcement operations are carried out through its regional offices and through agreements with state fair employment practices organizations (FEPs). Congress gave the EEOC litigation enforcement authority in 1972, and the General Council to the EEOC is responsible for conducting EEOC enforcement litigation in the courts.
The EEOC uses an integrated approach to remedy allegations of discrimination, including the use of conciliation, education, technical assistance, and litigation. The time limitation for filing charges with the EEOC is 180 days after the occurrence of the alleged discriminatory act. If the charging party is required to file first with a state or local FEP, the time limit for filing charges is increased to 300 days after the occurrence of the discriminatory act or 30 days after receiving notice that the FEP has terminated its processing of the charge, whichever is earlier. After the conclusion of proceedings before the EEOC, an individual claiming a violation of Title VII has 90 days after receipt of a right-to-sue letter from the commission to file a civil lawsuit in a federal district court.
EEOC charge processing begins with the filing of a complaint by an individual alleging violation of one of the statutes the EEOC is responsible for enforcing. The individual filing the charge is interviewed by an equal opportunity specialist, who assists the charging party in writing and filing a charge of discrimination if warranted. The EEOC classifies incoming charges by letter-designated priorities, designating “A” charges as worthy cases for immediate handling, “B” charges as those requiring further investigation, and “C” charges as those that have a low likelihood of success or merit. If the EEOC concludes that discrimination probably occurred (an “A” case), the agency will first undertake efforts at conciliation. This involves the EEOC’s working with the employer and employee to try to reach a settlement. If the EEOC’s conciliation efforts are unsuccessful, the commission will either issue the employee a reasonable-cause notice of right to sue or sue the employer itself.
In recent years, the EEOC has implemented a strategic plan that emphasizes proactive prevention. The commission has initiated efforts to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place by offering technical assistance seminars to employers, making more effective use of technology and the media, and encouraging both employers and alleged victims of discrimination to make more use of arbitration as an alternative to litigation. On February 1, 2001, President George W. Bush announced his New Freedom Initiative to promote the full integration of people with disabilities into all aspects of American life. EEOC activities associated with this initiative include free workshops on the ADA for small businesses and individuals with disabilities. These workshops, which include information on tax incentives, community resources, and the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees, are aimed at (a) encouraging businesses with 15 to 100 employees to hire individuals with disabilities and (b) assisting individuals entering the workforce in understanding the ADA. Other recent initiatives include special efforts to respond to the sharp increase in the number of complaints alleging employer discrimination against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. In 2004, the EEOC also announced the start of a yearlong campaign to protect teenage workers from discrimination and sexual harassment on the job. Youth at Work is a program designed to educate teenagers about their rights and encourage employers to voluntarily comply with federal rules forbidding harassment and abuse on the job.
The EEOC’s Web site (http://www.eeoc.gov/) contains a wide range of information, including historical information about the commission, enforcement guidelines, statistical data on charges filed, and litigation initiated by the EEOC under the act. The EEOC continues to update and make its Web site more user-friendly both for individuals attempting to exercise their rights under the laws enforced by the EEOC and for employers attempting to provide workplaces free of discrimination.
- Athey, J. 1999. Smart Strategies for EEOC Investigations. Brentwood, TN: M. Lee Smith.
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2004. “New Freedom Initiative.” Washington, DC: Author.
- Leonard, B. 2002. “On a Mission.” HR Magazine 47(10):38-42.
- Twomey, D. P. 2005. Employment Discrimination Law: A Manager’s Guide. Mason, OH: West Legal Studies in Business.