The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a government entity with the aim to eliminate discrimination from America’s workplaces.

The EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act, but was given only limited power to punish violating employers.  However, in 1972, Congress gave the EEOC the authority to sue employers.  The EEOC was no longer a “toothless tiger.”  From then on, the EEOC has aggressively investigated and gone after employers who are accused of engaging in discriminatory practices.  The EEOC has succeeded in taking cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

What Can the EEOC Do?

The EEOC is empowered to stop discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC also attempts to educate the public about discrimination in the workforce.

“Discrimination” is when the employer acts to cause some disadvantage to an employee or potential employee, based on the employee’s race, gender, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, and / or sex.  These factors of discrimination are called “immutable characteristics,” because a person is born with them and cannot change them.  In addition, these factors in no way hinder the employee’s ability to perform the essential tasks of his or her job.

Parties who wish to sue their employers must write a complaint to the EEOC. The EEOC will then investigate the complaint and determine if the complaint has merit. The EEOC will either bring the claim itself or give the party a “right to sue” letter, which allows the party to sue their employer in federal court. The EEOC does have the power to directly sue an employer the EEOC believes is in violation of discrimination laws.

The EEOC can also investigate companies on its own without waiting for a party to complain.  EEOC investigators can pretend to be job applicants to uncover discrimination. This type of undercover work typically involves two investigators with the same “qualifications” and the same “background,” except for a certain factor such as race or gender. Employers who hire one investigator but not the other can find themselves under further investigation.

How Has the EEOC Changed Over the Years?

In the early 1960’s, social changes, television, and the protest in Birmingham, Alabama, led to what is known as the Civil Rights Movement.  Martin Luther King Jr. made the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in a march in Washington.  Due to these protests and the unrest felt by the people, President Kennedy sent the first civil rights bill to Congress.  This bill would eventually evolve into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1978, President Carter gave the EEOC even more power. This included the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which gave the EEOC the responsibility of investigating discrimination against pregnant women.

However, in the 1980s, political leadership wanted the EEOC to give up those cases in which large classes of discriminated individuals were represented.  Instead, EEOC was increasingly limited to those cases where an individual employee comes down to the local EEOC office and complains of discrimination.

The 1990s saw the passage of the important American with Disabilities Act.  The EEOC continued to enforce the new acts through Supreme Court cases.

After the 2001 September 11th attacks, the EEOC worked to stem the tide of discrimination against those Middle Eastern origin and/or those perceived to be Muslim. The EEOC did this in spite of the fact that one of its offices, located near the World Trade Center, had been destroyed by the attacks. The EEOC also increased its efforts to educate the public about discrimination in the workplace.

Nowadays, the EEOC continues to remain a positive force in ridding our workplaces of sometimes difficult-to-notice discrimination.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Although the EEOC gives employees the right to sue in federal court and the EEOC brings its own claims against employers, the EEOC itself does not represent employees. Only an experienced discrimination lawyers can adequately represent an employee.
Employers who find themselves under EEOC investigation will also want an employment attorney to help them fight off any claims brought against them.