(by Andres Rojas)
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace.
The EEOC will hear complaints against employers who discriminate based on immutable characteristics, such as age or sex. Since 1964, the courts have expanded the definition of immutability to include seriously held beliefs, such as religion and gender identity, that are considered too important for an individual to change.
Employees can have legal grounds to file an EEOC complaint if their employers discriminate against them in any of the following ways:
- Age: Discriminates against workers aged 40 and older – although federal legislation doesn’t cover younger workers.
- Disability: Treats disabled workers, or workers with disabled partners, less favorably or doesn’t provide reasonable accommodations for them.
- Equal Pay/Compensation: Pays men and women differently for doing the same job.
- Genetic Information: Uses, requests, requires, purchases, discloses, or discriminates based on their employees’ or applicants’ genetic information.
- National Origin: Treats applicants or employees who are, or appear to be, from another country or ethnic background unfavorably.
- Pregnancy: Discriminates against a female employee or applicant because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to either of them.
- Race/Color: Treats an applicant or employee unfavorably because they are or appear to belong to a certain race.
- Religion: Treats people unfavorably because of their sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs.
- Sex: Discriminates against an employee or applicant because of their sex.
- Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Discriminates when hiring or employing individuals because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or transgender status.
For more information about the federal anti-discrimination legislation enforced by the EEOC, click here.
The EEOC considers harassment to be any unwelcome conduct that targets individuals because of their race, sex, age, genetic information, or other immutable characteristic protected by equal opportunity employment legislation.
Harassment in the workplace is one of HR’s biggest struggles. Offensive conduct that could give legal ground for harassment complaints include:
- Offensive jokes
- Threats or intimidation
- Physical assault
- Interfering with an employee’s work
Regular office arguments between co-workers are not considered harassment by the EEOC. However, if they reflect a pattern of abuse that the employee must endure to keep their job or create a hostile workplace where a reasonable person would feel intimidated, they could be considered grounds for an EEOC complaint.
An unwanted, offensive behavior is considered sexual harassment when it’s done because of an employee or applicant’s sex.
Sexual harassment can manifest itself in many ways, such as unwelcome sexual advances, offensive sexual remarks about a woman or women in general, sexual favor requests, or verbal or physical abuse because of a person’s sex.
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers have the responsibility to protect their workers from sexual harassment whether it comes from a co-worker, a manager, or even someone not employed with the company – such as a client. Neglecting this duty is considered grounds for a sexual harassment claim.
Employees may also file a retaliation complaint if they are suffering workplace harassment because they filed a previous or ongoing EEOC complaint.
Retaliation complaints are the most common type of EEOC complaint. Federal anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination against employees who are defending their rights, testifying, or assisting in any other way an ongoing EEO investigation.
Retaliation in the workplace can take many forms, some common examples of harassment that are grounds for an EEO lawsuit if they are made because of a claim include:
- Firing, demoting, giving a low performance, or passing over the employee for promotion.
- Physically or verbally abusing the employee.
- Reporting, or threatening to report, the employee to the authorities (such as immigration).
- Making the claimant’s job harder – such as forcing them to work overtime, change their schedule, or increase scrutiny just to punish them.
Employers can still discipline or even fire a worker that has a pending discrimination complaint but only if their actions aren’t retaliatory.
As anti-discrimination legislation increases its sophistication and scope, your business will become increasingly vulnerable to EEOC complaints. So if you haven’t yet, talk to an equal employment opportunity consultant and make sure your office policies are EEOC compliant today.