Definition of EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)


The EEOC enforces employment laws related to equal and fair treatment in the workplace. Among other regulations, they oversee compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA, and GINA.

What is the EEOC?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is well-known to employers and HR professionals. The EEOC is an independent federal agency that enforces laws that forbid workplace discrimination.

The EEOC’s three primary goals are to:

  • Advance equal opportunity
  • Prevent unlawful employment discrimination
  • Provide remedies for employment bias

Why is the EEOC important to small businesses?

The agency is essential to employers because it is one of the top workplace regulators. Its primary purpose is to prevent workplace discrimination and provide remedies for those who have experienced workplace bias.

The agency also provides guidance on many topics that employers can use to prevent discrimination and reduce possible legal liability for bias complaints.

The agency is vital to employees because employees who feel they have been subjected to misconduct can file a complaint with the agency at no cost. The EEOC receives thousands of complaints each year. However, not all workers qualify for EEOC protection. The employee or job applicant must belong to one of the specific groups protected by law.

What is the history of the EEOC?

The EEOC was created under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII forbids employers from considering a legally protected characteristic when making employment decisions. The EEOC started operations in 1965.

While the federal agency enforces several federal laws, it does not sponsor or take part in creating legislation.

Agency names

The agency is often referred to as the “EEOC” or the “Commission.”

Composition of the Commission

The President appoints the five commissioners who head up the EEOC. These appointments must also be approved by Congress. They serve a five-year term. No more than three can be from the same political party.

The political breakdown of the commissioners can be critical. In years when Republicans have a majority of commissioners, decisions are generally employer-friendly. In years when the EEOC commissioners are primarily composed of Democrats, decisions tend to be employee friendly.

EEOC field offices

The EEOC’s headquarters is in Washington, D.C. However, the agency has field offices all over the country.

Among other things, field offices investigate and resolve claims of employment discrimination.

Agency guidance

The EEOC provides guidance on a wide variety of topics on its website. HR professionals can use the information to help them perform their job. For example, the EEOC published “Promising Practices in Preventing Harassment,” a guide for employers in addressing harassment.

The EEOC provides guidance on a wide variety of topics on its website.

In another example, the EEOC published “The Legal Rights of Pregnant Workers” in 2016. The guidance explains employee rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Employers and employees can use the information to understand how pregnant workers should be treated in the workplace.

The EEOC also issues regulations that interpret and clarify laws. The regulations address concerns and questions so that employees and employers understand workplace rights and obligations.

What is a protected class?

Protected classes are fundamental in EEOC enforcement. A protected class is the legal term used to describe a category of individuals or those with a characteristic that an employer cannot use when making employment-related decisions. Such decisions include hiring (which means job applicants have protection against bias under federal law), promotions, raises, bonuses, and termination of employment.

Legally protected classes under federal law include:

  • Age
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex (including sexual orientation, pregnancy, and gender identity)

For example, employers cannot consider race when making employment decisions. Similarly, employers cannot make employment decisions based on a candidate’s age.

Laws enforced by the EEOC

The EEOC enforces several federal laws. In a nutshell, the statutes prohibit employers from discriminating against employees. In many instances, the regulations also forbid employers from retaliating against workers who have complained about misconduct.

Legal experts recommend that employers thoroughly understand the laws that apply to their businesses.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of a legally protected characteristic such as color and national origin. This law makes up the majority of EEOC enforcement actions. Employers with 15 or more employees must comply.

Title VII also forbids retaliation. Retaliation occurs when an adverse employment action is taken because an employee cooperates with investigators or alleges workplace bias. Bias claims often include a separate charge of retaliation.

A retaliation claim can succeed where a discrimination claim has failed. Employers should know there have been many instances where an employee did not produce enough evidence to support a discrimination claim but was able to prove retaliation.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Lawmakers amended Title VII in 1976 after the U.S. Supreme Court held that discriminating against pregnant women didn’t violate federal law. Congress added the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to Title VII. The rule clarifies that pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination and, as a result, is illegal.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) was enacted one year before Title VII. It requires that employers pay men and women the same salary when they do equal or substantially similar work.

The EPA also forbids retaliation against workers who complain about their pay.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA protects employees and job applicants with disabilities from workplace bias. The law also requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations that enable employees with disabilities to do their jobs.

Employers with 15 or more employees must comply.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was enacted in 1967. Employees who are 40 years old and older are protected from employment discrimination. The ADEA also requires that employers provide equal benefits for older employees.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability who works for the federal government. It also requires that employers reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability who is a job applicant or employee unless doing so creates an undue hardship for the employer.

The law also forbids retaliation against workers who have filed a discrimination charge or participated in an investigation.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) went into effect in 2008. GINA forbids discrimination based on genetic information. In most circumstances, employers can’t gather genetic information about employees and must keep genetic information confidential.

What happens when a discrimination charge is filed?

Workers contact the EEOC if they believe they have experienced workplace discrimination. Workers can file their charge through the EEOC’s website, by telephone, or by going to the nearest field office.

The agency generally accepts bias charges from employees, investigates the claim, and makes determinations based on its finding. Possible resolutions include:

  • Mediation
  • Settlement
  • Conciliation
  • Litigation

Charges don’t always lead to employer liability. In some instances, the EEOC dismisses the charges at the outset. For example, if the worker missed the 180-day deadline for filing the claim or the employee’s allegations don’t support a violation of the law. In other instances, the agency may investigate and issue a finding that discrimination has not occurred.

Summary of the definition of the EEOC

The EEOC exists to fight and prevent employment discrimination. Employers can avoid discrimination claims and aid the agency in its goals by supporting an inclusive workplace with implemented appropriate policies and strong internal employee complaint procedures.

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