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What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

Scott Tuning, Shawn Grimsley
  • Author
    Scott Tuning

    Scott has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years. He holds an undergraduate degree in management, a MBA in Management, and an M.Div. with a concentration in Ethics. He is actively teaching as in the role of a lecturer at a university in Colorado.

  • Instructor
    Shawn Grimsley

    Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Learn all about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also known as the EEOC. Understand the definition and meaning of EEOC and learn its role and responsibilities. Updated: 04/17/2022

What is the EEOC?

Commonly known as the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has primary purpose of preventing unlawful discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC may become involved in a case when an allegation is made that a minority employee has been treated less favorably than someone in a similar role who is not in a protected class. A protected class describes a group of individuals in a category or with a characteristic that employers cannot use in making employment-related decisions.

The importance of the EEOC cannot be overstated. In the years since its existence, the Commission has helped thousands of employees and candidates mitigate the impact of discrimination in employment. The ways that the EEOC has advanced equality include:

  • Ensuring that race, ethnicity, and national origin are not considered when making employment decisions
  • Promoting equal pay for women and minorities
  • Requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees covered under the ADA
  • Preventing employers from retaliating against employees who report discrimination or cooperate with authorities during investigations

The EEOC is important to both employers and employees. For employees, the EEOC can provide support by informing them of their rights so that their recourse is not limited to filing a lawsuit. For employers, the EEOC offers guidance that can reduce the employer's exposure to complaints of discrimination. Like all regulatory agencies, the EEOC does not sponsor or participate in legislation enacted by Congress. Its role is exclusively to enforce existing law.

How Does the EEOC Work?

The EEOC works by investigating allegations of unlawful discrimination of employees or job candidates who believe themselves to be the victims of workplace discrimination. The EEOC then screens the allegation to determine if the claim - if true - would fall within the agency's scope of jurisdiction.

The EEOC commonly declines to pursue a large number of complaints received for various reasons, including the following:

  • The respondent employer does not meet the size threshold for EEOC enforcement. The EEOC's enforcement authority on most matters is restricted to companies with more than 15 employees. However, EEOC enforcement actions related to age discrimination require the company to have at least 20 employees.
  • The allegation does not establish a prima facie case. This occurs when the claim made - even if true - would not have constituted unlawful discrimination.
  • The complaining party is not in a protected class recognized by the EEOC. The EEOC supports those subject to discrimination based on characteristics like race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Regardless of the merit of a claim, the EEOC cannot act on wrongful termination complaints on any other grounds.

If the EEOC determines that the allegation meets the requisite standard, then it will work to facilitate a dialogue between the parties. This process generally follows the paradigm that each party's statements of fact are true, with the opposing party being allowed an opportunity to refute the claim. While it may seem a foregone conclusion that the parties cannot agree, it is often the case that it is not the material facts in dispute but the motivations, reasons, or processes that led to the establishment of these facts in the first place.

When the material facts of the allegation are established, the EEOC may advise the parties as to the presence or absence of unlawful discrimination. If the Commission determines that illegal discrimination did not occur, they may issue a document explaining the complainant's right to sue in federal court. Although the party is permitted to file a lawsuit without a supporting finding from the EEOC, the party bringing the suit must make the court aware that the EEOC did not find unlawful discrimination occurred.

If the EEOC determines that discrimination may have occurred, the Commission will initiate a pre-litigation process to remedy the discrimination. This process often involves negotiation, mediation, or even proceedings before an EEOC administrative law judge. In rare instances where the EEOC and employer cannot reach any mutually agreeable resolution, the EEOC is empowered to litigate against the employer in federal court. Litigation is a rare and extreme remedy used in only a small fraction of EEOC cases.

Definition & Concept

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal government agency that enforces federal employment discrimination laws and regulates certain employment activities. These laws cover discrimination based upon race, national origin, color, religion, sex, disability or genetic information. Examples of work situations subject to enforcement include hiring, firing, training, promotion, wages, benefits, and harassment. Businesses should be aware of the EEOC to ensure compliance with the law, and employees should be aware of the organization to know their rights.

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Federal Laws Enforced by the EEOC

The EEOC's broad enforcement authority is drawn from a relatively narrow set of statutes they enforce. Employers and employees must have a basic familiarity with these important statutes so that both parties understand the intent of the laws and the actions that employers must take to comply.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Often referred to as simply Title VII, this law is the bedrock of the EEOC's enforcement actions. Title VII contains the language nearly every American is familiar with regarding Civil Rights. Specifically, Title VII establishes that race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and gender are all off-limits in employment decisions. Employers may not consider these factors in any way whatsoever when making workplace decisions.

Title VII also prohibits retaliation. Retaliation occurs when adverse employment actions are taken because an employee cooperates with investigators or makes a claim of their own. The complaint itself need not be true for retaliation to occur. If an employee made the complaint in good faith, employers may not retaliate even if the allegation is not sustained.

Finally, Title VII protects religious observances in the workplace. Title VII requires employers to accommodate religious practices and clothing to a reasonable extent. Reasonable is somewhat subjective, but the EEOC usually defines the term as accommodation that does not create a safety risk or substantially interfere with the employer's business.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963

Commonly called the EPA, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 makes it unlawful to pay similarly situated persons different wages based on gender. This means that the EEOC will pursue allegations of women receiving lower wages than their male counterparts, provided all other things are equal. As in most other statutes enforced by the EEOC, the EPA only applies to persons who share the same job or role and generally perform the same work. The same retaliation prohibitions in Title VII also apply to the EPA.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is often referred to by the acronym ADEA. This statute is slightly more narrow than other civil rights legislation in that it establishes a specific class - persons over the age of 40 - and prevents discrimination on those grounds. Like other similar statutes, it is unlawful to retaliate for cooperating with investigations or making complaints under this Act.

Authority & Roles

The EEOC is authorized to investigate complaints of employment discrimination filed by employees against employers. Employers who have at least 15 employees are usually subject to the employment discrimination laws the EEOC enforces, with the exception of age discrimination, which requires 20 employees.

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Video Transcript

Definition & Concept

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal government agency that enforces federal employment discrimination laws and regulates certain employment activities. These laws cover discrimination based upon race, national origin, color, religion, sex, disability or genetic information. Examples of work situations subject to enforcement include hiring, firing, training, promotion, wages, benefits, and harassment. Businesses should be aware of the EEOC to ensure compliance with the law, and employees should be aware of the organization to know their rights.

Authority & Roles

The EEOC is authorized to investigate complaints of employment discrimination filed by employees against employers. Employers who have at least 15 employees are usually subject to the employment discrimination laws the EEOC enforces, with the exception of age discrimination, which requires 20 employees.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the EEOC and what is its purpose?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (commonly called by the acronym EEOC) exists to prevent and remedy discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC is the go-to resource for individuals who believe they are victims of discrimination in the workplace.

What laws does the EEOC enforce?

The EEOC enforces a number of federal laws. Some of the key pieces of legislation enforced by the EEOC include the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

Why is EEOC important?

The EEOC is important because it provides support for victims of unlawful workplace discrimination. Without the EEOC, individuals impacted by unlawful discrimination would have almost no recourse other than the extremely costly and lengthy process of filing suit in court.

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