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  1. Blog
  2. Workplace Rights

How to Report Discrimination at Work

What to know about filing a claim with the EEOC and when you should

Woman reporting discrimination at work
Photo courtesy of Mimi Thian

Workplace discrimination continues to be a common occurrence in the U.S. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that it had more than 67,000 workplace discrimination charges in 2020 and secured $439 million for discrimination victims.

Discrimination can be a more obvious action, like an employer firing someone because of their race or sexual orientation, or it can be more subtle, like an old company policy that impacts certain groups differently than others. Employment discrimination may apply to applicants, new hires, or existing employees.

The EEOC enforces civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination in the workplace. Typically an employee will file a complaint with the EEOC to request an investigation that could lead to a lawsuit against the employer. 

This guide will walk through everything to know about the EEOC, applicable laws, and how to go about filing a claim if you believe you’ve experienced discrimination. 

What does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do?

The EEOC enforces several federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination, including:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, and prohibits retaliation against someone who makes a complaint about discrimination. 

  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act: This act is an amendment to Title VII that makes it illegal to discriminate against a woman due to pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to either.

  • Equal Pay Act of 1963: It is illegal under this law to pay different wages to men and women if they work in the same workplace and perform equal work.

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967: People 40 and older are protected under this act from discrimination because of their age.

  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: Title I prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with a disability in government and private sector work. Employers also have to accommodate known physical or mental limitations unless it would cause the employer undue hardship.

Each law includes provisions regarding retaliation so that anyone who complained about discrimination or assisted with a lawsuit or investigation is protected.

Reporting discrimination at work: what counts as discrimination and examples of subtle and not-so subtle unfair treatment 

Anytime you’re dealing with discrimination or unfair treatment at work, you should start the process to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. 

You can report discrimination at work if you feel you’ve been discriminated against because of your:

  • Race

  • Color

  • Sex

  • Religion

  • Pregnancy

  • Disability

  • Age

  • National origin

  • Sexual orientation

  • Gender identity

  • Genetic information

Discrimination can happen at any stage in the employee lifecycle. Sometimes discrimination happens during the interview. Maybe someone interviewing you asked you an inappropriate or illegal question or was trying to get you to reveal personal information that would impact whether they would hire you. 

Discrimination also occurs within the workplace to current employees. An example may be if someone didn’t get a promotion because of being pregnant or being a certain age, or a worker may be unfairly criticized or disciplined because of their sex or religion. 

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Self-Worth in the Workplace

As you might have surmised, discrimination can also take many forms. Remember that discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional for it to be illegal, as the Department of Labor (DOL) states. The agency outlines a couple of types of discrimination that can help you figure out if you’re experiencing a situation that’s protected by law. These are:

  • Disparate treatment: This occurs when an employer treats one worker less favorably than others of similar job level and duties, and the differing treatment is due to someone’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, or protected veteran status.

  • Disparate impact: This type can be a bit trickier. The employer may have written policies in place that seem to be fair and fairly applied to everyone, but they end up having a negative impact on members of protected groups.

Examples of discrimination at work include everything from paying men more than women for the same work to making fun of workers because they speak with an accent. But discrimination can also fly under the radar, like requiring a test that isn’t related to the actual job duties just to screen out certain applicants within protected groups (the DOL gives examples of unnecessary math or lifting tests).

How to report discrimination at work: timing and filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 

If you think you’ve experienced discrimination at work, it’s best to report it as soon as possible. You usually have to file a charge with the EEOC within 180 or 300 days from whenever the discrimination took place. According to the EEOC, the timeline is extended from 180 to 300 days if “a state or local agency enforces a state or local law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.” 

In addition, age discrimination charges have a 300-day filing deadline if there is a state law that prohibits age discrimination in employment and it is enforced by a state agency or authority (i.e., if only a local law prohibits age discrimination, the deadline isn’t extended.)

Not all employers are covered by EEOC laws. State and local governments and businesses with 15 or more employees must comply, as well as federal agencies with any number of employees.

Filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 

When you’re ready to file a complaint with the EEOC, you will make a charge of discrimination, which is a signed statement that asserts that your employer engaged in employment discrimination. You have to file a charge before a lawsuit for these matters.

You have a few options for filing a complaint, outlined below:

  • Online through the EEOC’s Public Portal.

  • In person at an EEOC office: Find the closest office to you here.

  • Over the phone: Call 1-800-669-4000 to learn if your situation is covered and how to file a complaint.

  • At a state or local Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA).

  • By mail: Send a letter with the below information to the EEOC field office in the jurisdiction of the employer’s geographic location. Note that if you do not sign the letter, the EEOC can’t proceed.

For each option, you’ll need to have these details ready:

  • Your name, address, email, and phone number

  • The same as above for the employer you’re filing a charge against

  • How many employees employed there

  • A description of the discriminatory actions

  • When the actions took place

  • Why you believe you were discriminated against (i.e., because of your age, religion, sex, etc.)

  • Your signature

What to expect after reporting discrimination at work 

After submitting your complaint, you may be asked if you want to go through counseling or dispute resolution with the employer. Your case may also be referred to mediation, but both parties have to agree. 

If those options do not work, the EEOC starts an investigation. The time it takes to go through the investigation will vary based on each situation. An agency investigator will gather all the evidence needed to make a decision about whether you were discriminated against, so you don’t need to provide any evidence other than the information mentioned above when filing your complaint.

If the EEOC isn’t able to find that the law was violated, the agency will allow you to file a lawsuit in court and will send you a Notice of Right to Sue. You can then file a lawsuit within 90 days of getting this notice.

If, however, the EEOC does find that a law was violated, a settlement will be the next step. The EEOC will try to come to a voluntary settlement with the organization, and if that is impossible, then the EEOC’s legal staff will decide if they should file a lawsuit. If they don’t, you will get the same Notice of Right to Sue to move forward yourself.

How to get more help after reporting discrimination at work 

All of the laws associated with discrimination cases can be complicated and challenging to understand. It’s hard enough to experience discrimination and possibly harmful treatment at work, and then have to navigate these steps and requirements on your own.

If this sounds like how you’re feeling, try first calling the EEOC number (1-800-669-4000), and someone from the EEOC staff will talk to you about your situation and will help you understand how to begin the process. They may send you a pre-charge inquiry form that you can fill out and bring to a field office near you. Each office has different wait times and requirements for walk-ins, so you may want to call first to understand the best way to proceed.

Another option is to work with an employment discrimination lawyer who can help you through the process and fight for your rights. While this may be pricier than moving forward yourself, sometimes your case may benefit from having legal help and additional support behind you.

If you think you’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace, it’s important to know that you’re protected by federal law and can take action. Make sure to have applicable details ready before talking to the EEOC or an attorney to move forward and get justice for what happened.

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