If you are facing workplace discrimination or harassment, your first line of defense should be to complain within your company, using the complaint procedures outlined in the employee handbook or other policies. (If your company doesn't have a complaint process, raise your concerns with the HR department or a manager.) For information on how to do this -- and why it's important not to skip this step -- see Suing for Harassment or Discrimination.
If you aren't satisfied with your company's response, you may file a charge (complaint) of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency. Compared to most other government agencies, the EEOC has very well-defined procedures for filing complaints. But the EEOC also operates through a complex hierarchy of offices and has strict time limits for filing complaints, which usually range from a few months to nearly a year. Pay particular attention to timing if you decide to take action against what you believe is illegal workplace discrimination. (See “When to File,” below.)
Where to File
Title VII complaints can be filed at:
- local equal employment opportunity agency offices. These are not federal offices, but state and local agencies that have been designated as representatives of the EEOC.
- state and regional offices of the EEOC.
There are EEOC offices throughout the United States; check the EEOC's website for a list of offices. Normally, it is best to file a complaint at the office nearest to you or your place of employment. But, if there is no office nearby or in your state, you can legally file a complaint in any office.
When to File
If your state has its own equal employment opportunity laws, you will typically be allowed 300 days after the act of discrimination occurred to file a complaint. But, if your state does not have its own equal employment opportunity laws, you have only 180 days to file. The safest way to proceed is to assume that 180 days is the limit in your case and file your complaint as soon as possible.
In some cases, you will not be able to recognize illegal discrimination from a single action by an employer. If you discern a pattern of illegal discrimination that extends back more than 180 days, the safest way to proceed is to assume that the EEOC time limit began with the event that caused you to recognize the pattern and file a complaint as soon as possible. Such cases often require complicated proof, so consider consulting a lawyer for help.
EXAMPLE: A woman who worked with Jan in a pharmaceutical lab was fired in January. Two months later, the lab fired another woman. In June, a third woman was fired.
When the third woman was fired, Jan began to notice that the firings seemed to have nothing to do with job performance. Although the lab employed several men with less experience and whose job performance was not as good as the three women who had been fired, no men had been fired.
After consistently receiving positive performance reviews, Jan’s supervisor informed her the lab staff was being reduced and she should start looking for another job. Jan took a few weeks to gather evidence to support her belief that the company was illegally discriminating against women on the basis of gender and then filed a complaint with the EEOC in September.
Organizing Your Evidence
Because illegal discrimination rarely takes the form of one simple event, it is important to organize your evidence of incidents of illegal discrimination before contacting the EEOC to file a complaint.
Whenever possible, keep a log of the date, time, location, people involved, and nature of actions that demonstrate any pattern of illegal discrimination. Keep a file of any documents that your employer gives you, such as written performance reviews or disciplinary notices.
If you present your evidence to the EEOC in an organized way—without yielding to the temptation to vent your displeasure with your employer’s policies and practices—you will raise the chances of your complaint getting full attention and consideration from the EEOC investigators.
How the EEOC Handles Complaints
When you file a complaint, typically an EEOC staff lawyer or investigator will interview you and initially evaluate whether or not your employer’s actions appear to violate Title VII. Theoretically, the EEOC has 180 days to act on your complaint. If the interviewer does not feel that the incident warrants a complaint, he or she will tell you so.
If the interviewer feels you should pursue your complaint with the EEOC, he or she will fill out an EEOC Charge of Discrimination form describing the incident and send it to you to review and sign. After receiving your complaint, the EEOC is supposed to interview the employer that is the subject of the complaint and then try to mediate a settlement of the complaint between you and that employer.
That is what the EEOC’s operating regulations provide. And, for the most part, the EEOC does what it is supposed to do. But do not expect every claim to proceed as described. EEOC offices differ in caseloads, local procedures, and the quality of their personnel. Investigations are usually slow, sometimes taking three years or more. The EEOC takes only a small portion of its cases to court—less than 1% of those that are filed with it. These and other factors can have an impact on how a case is actually handled.
Tips for Dealing With the EEOC
There are a number of things to keep in mind when helping to shuttle your claim through the EEOC bureaucracy most efficiently:
- Stay vigilant. Do not assume that the EEOC will do everything and that you don’t have to monitor what is going on. Check periodically with the EEOC to find out what is happening with your case.
- Be assertive. If some EEOC action—or, more likely, inaction—is causing you serious problems, call that to the attention of the people handling your case.
- Read—and reread—the fine print. When you file a charge with the EEOC, a worker there will ask you to read and sign a written statement summarizing your claim. Be sure to scrutinize the form carefully before signing. Some later argue that their words were twisted or misstated on the EEOC charge form—an allegation that’s hard to prove once the signed form wends its way into the system.
- Keep your options open. Filing a claim with the EEOC does not prevent you from taking other action to deal with your case. You still have a right to try to solve the problem on your own or use a company complaint procedure. You also have the right to hire an attorney to file a lawsuit, if that is appropriate for your situation.
Penalties for Retaliation
It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you either for filing a Title VII complaint or for cooperating in the investigation of one. But, to take advantage of this protection, you must be able to prove that the retaliation occurred because you filed a complaint.
And historically, you were required to prove that the retaliation was work-related. However, in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically changed and expanded the scope of such claims by redefining retaliation, holding for the first time that an employer’s harmful actions need not be related to employment or the workplace to qualify as Title VII retaliation.
And it also resolved the question of how serious the harm must be before it qualifies as retaliation. In the case, the employer, Burlington Northern, reassigned Sheila White, the only female forklift operator, to a less desirable position and suspended her without pay for more than a month after she complained of workplace discrimination. Burlington then claimed White was not sufficiently harmed, since the new position was within the same work classification and her back pay was eventually reinstated. The justices, however, were persuaded by the reality that the new position was less prestigious and “by all accounts more arduous and dirtier.” And they also underscored that while she was eventually repaid, White and her family had to live for 37 days without income, noting her testimony at trial: “That was the worst Christmas I had out of my life. No money, no income—and that made all of us feel bad.” The Court held that as long as “a reasonable employee” finds an action to be “materially adverse,” it can qualify as retaliation in a Title VII claim. (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 126 S. Ct. 2405 (2006).)
But more often than not, an employer that wants to retaliate against you for filing a Title VII complaint will cite substandard job performance.
EXAMPLE: Hector filed a Title VII complaint because he observed that his employer never promotes anyone of his race above a certain level. To investigate Hector’s complaint, the EEOC reviewed documents related to the company’s hiring practices to determine whether it is, in fact, using race as the basis for hiring decisions.
Two weeks later, Hector was dismissed from his job because, the company claimed, his performance was below its standards. If Hector decides to file an additional complaint charging the company with illegal retaliation, he will probably have to prove that his performance satisfied or exceeded the company’s standards—and that the real reason he was fired was because he filed a Title VII complaint.
Filing a Title VII Lawsuit
While you file your discrimination claim with the EEOC, be aware that the agency pursues only a small fraction of the charges it receives. In the very likely event that the EEOC does not act on your complaint within 180 days, you then have the right to request a right-to-sue letter that authorizes you to file a lawsuit in federal court against the offending employer. This type of lawsuit is complex and, in cases involving an employee dismissal, is often packaged with other claims. You will probably need to hire a lawyer to help you.
Once you receive a right-to-sue letter, you have only 90 days to file a lawsuit, so deadlines are very important at this point of the Title VII process. The EEOC has the right to file a lawsuit on your behalf, but do not expect that to happen unless your case has a very high political or publicity value—a very small percentage of the claims filed. The EEOC’s out-of-pocket expenses are limited by law to $5,000 per lawsuit—many thousands of dollars less than it typically costs to take an employment discrimination case to court.