Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against workers over protected characteristics such as their race, gender or age. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for investigating complaints of workplace discrimination.
The EEOC can only take action against an employer if it knows that a violation of someone's rights has occurred. The EEOC relies on workers to report instances of discrimination, either against themselves or against co-workers. Once a complaint is filed, an employer is required to conduct an investigation. This can be done internally or the employer can hire an independent employment law investigator.
You Can't Be Punished for Reporting Violations
If you believe you're being discriminated against because of a protected characteristic, you can complain to the EEOC and ask them to look into the situation. If you do, Title VII prohibits your employer from retaliating against you because you took action.
Your boss can't fire you, demote you, decrease your pay, or make your workplace intolerable because you took steps to protect your rights. Title VII also protects you against retaliation if you make a claim of discrimination on behalf of a co-worker who might be too frightened to speak up.
The EEOC Responds to Retaliation
Reporting discrimination involves filing a "charge of discrimination" with the EEOC, which has branch offices around the country. The EEOC treats a retaliation charge as a separate claim from the original act of discrimination, so if your employer retaliates you'll be dealing with two cases. For example, if you complain that your employer is unfairly paying you less than a co-worker, the EEOC will investigate this. If your employer fires you because you made the complaint, the EEOC will open an additional investigation into the act of retaliation.
The EEOC Doesn't Always Take Action
Punishment or penalties are not always automatic if you file a charge of discrimination, either for a violation or for retaliation. The EEOC might send you and your employer to mediation to try to work things out.
If that fails, the EEOC will assign an investigator to look into your claim. If the investigator believes your employer is guilty of discrimination, the EEOC might try to reach a settlement that works for everyone. If settlement efforts fail, the EEOC will file a lawsuit against your employer, asking the court to order penalties.
You Have Other Options
In a workplace discrimination case, you can't take matters into your own hands without first notifying the EEOC. For example, you can't sue your employer in your state court if you haven't first filed a federal charge of discrimination.
If the EEOC investigates and closes your case because the investigator doesn't believe your employer discriminated against you, you're then free to file a lawsuit in your state court on your own.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the role of the EEOC in workplace discrimination is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an employment lawyer.