The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is often the first place workplace discrimination victims turn for legal assistance. The EEOC enforces compliance with federal workplace discrimination laws by receiving, investigating and resolving incidents of workplace discrimination.
In the 2017 fiscal year, the agency received more than 500,000 calls and 150,000 in-person inquiries. They received more than 84,000 formal charges and recovered nearly $50 million for victims.
Investigation times vary depending on several factors, but the average time between charge filing and resolution is nearly one year. For employers accused of discrimination, an investigation can be long, complex and expensive.
This article breaks down the stages of an EEOC investigation, from the initial complaint to the resolution options. At the end, we share great tips for fast-tracking an EEOC investigation and the best strategies to avoid one altogether.
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The primary law enforced by the EEOC is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is the law prohibiting discrimination against protected groups such as religion, race, national origin, age, sex and disability.
In addition to Title VII, says MCDR Law, the EEOC enforces compliance with these other federal laws:
- Equal Pay Act of 1963
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973 S. 501 and 505
- Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
- Civil Rights Act of 1991
1. Someone Files a Charge
The process begins when someone files a charge with the EEOC or, for state claims, with the appropriate state agency such as the Department of Fair Housing and Employment in California.
Charges generally must be made within 180 days of the last discriminatory act and do not need to be filed by the direct victim. Charges require three pieces of information:
- A summary of the incident(s)
- Details about the employer
- The date of the last violation
A charge may be assigned priority if the preliminary facts indicate a violation occurred. On the contrary, a charge may be dismissed at any point in time if the EEOC concludes the incident did not violate the law.
2. The EEOC Notifies the Employer
If the charge is not immediately dismissed, there is some basis for proceeding. The EEOC has ten days to send a notice to the accused explaining that a charge has been brought up against them.
The employer should forward the letter to whoever is responsible for handling investigations within the company or an outside legal representative.
3. The Employer Acknowledges the Charge
The employer must send a letter to the EEOC with the name of the legal representative who will handle the situation and respond to requests. Once this letter is received, the EEOC will launch a formal investigation.
By acknowledging the charge, the employer does not admit guilt. The communication simply states that the employer is aware there is a charge against them and an investigation is about to begin.
4. The EEOC Initiates the Investigation
To aid in the investigation, the employer may be expected to tell their side of the story in what’s formally called a position statement. The respondent typically has 30 days to submit their statement and relevant, supporting documents.
According to the EEOC:
It is in the Respondent’s interest to provide an effective position statement that focuses on the facts. An effective position statement is clear, concise, complete and responsive. It should clearly explain the Respondent’s version of the facts and identify the specific documents and evidence supporting its position.
A position statement that addresses all the allegations in the charge and provides relevant evidence to support the Respondent’s position can help EEOC accelerate the investigation and tailor its requests for additional information.
The employer will also receive a Request for Information (RFI) which requires them to answer questions, supply relevant documents (such as workplace policies and personnel files), participate in interviews, provide employee information and permit on-site visits.
If the investigation takes longer than 180 days, the accused may request the EEOC grant them the right to sue, regardless of an incomplete investigation.
A strong employee handbook and anti-discrimination policy is a great defense. Make sure you’ve got one to back you up, should you ever find yourself in an EEOC investigation. To get started, here’s a downloadable template: Employee Handbook Template.
5. The EEOC Makes a Determination
Based on the investigation, the EEOC will determine whether sufficient reasonable cause exists to believe a violation occurred.
If the investigation does not provide sufficient reasonable cause, the EEOC dismisses the charge and closes the case. The accuser has a right to file a lawsuit regardless of the findings within 90 days.
If there is sufficient reasonable cause, the EEOC will write a determination letter containing a brief summary of their decision and supporting reasons.
The EEOC is legally required to first attempt conciliation to remedy the incident. Conciliation is an opportunity to negotiate how the employer should change its procedures and decide on remedies for those affected.
Conciliation is the final chance at resolution before potential litigation and has many benefits. The process is cheaper and quicker than heading to court, it avoids the animosity of a lawsuit, and because it is a negotiation, it is often successful in meeting the needs of both parties.
If successful, there will be no lawsuit. If the conciliation process is unsuccessful, the victim may file a lawsuit or ask that the EEOC file one on their behalf.
At any point before or during the investigation process, the victim and employer can attempt mediation or a settlement. Both options are voluntary and effective resolution options. Mediation and settlements are also relatively inexpensive because they avoid litigation.
An employer agreeing to mediation or a settlement is not admitting wrongdoing. Instead, the employer has simply decided to resolve the complaint informally.
The EEOC provides mediation services to lead a discussion, during which both parties and the mediator negotiate a resolution. Mediation often leads to the employer changing policy and providing a fair sum to the victim.
Settling is another voluntary resolution that can occur at any point in the investigation process. Similar to mediation, settling is informal, avoids lengthy legal battles and does not require the accused to admit liability. The main difference between the two is the involvement of a third-party mediator.
An investigation can be costly for an employer, even one that is not guilty. RFI’s are time-consuming and take valuable resources away from other projects. For those whose innocence is proven in court, there will still be large legal bills and damaging publicity.
Employers found guilty might be expected to pay expensive damages in the form of back pay, hiring, promotion, reinstatement, front pay, reasonable accommodation or other actions that will make the victim “whole”, in addition to the attorney fees and court costs.
Because the costs are so great, it’s best to avoid an EEOC investigation entirely. But, if you find yourself in one, there are many ways to simplify and fast-track the process.
- The investigation process is much quicker when both parties cooperate and participate. The complaint is less likely to go to court, saving the employer time, money and negative publicity.
- Be timely. Providing files in a timely manner fast-tracks the investigation and keeps the agency happy. It also looks good on the employer as it demonstrates openness and transparency.
- Keep accurate, up-to-date information. An employer without up-to-date, organized files directly slows the investigation process. Using case management software can help to ensure organized, accurate, up-to-date information is available any time you need it.
Education and training can help to prevent discrimination and discriminatory harassment in your organization, but it may still occur. When it does, there are a number of steps you can take to ensure that incidents are resolved internally and never escalate to the point of getting the EEOC involved.
- Victims may feel uncomfortable speaking with HR or their manager at their work one-on-one, which is why they turn to the EEOC. So, offer a hotline or online form to receive tips and complaints.
- Under federal law, employers must visibly display an Equal Employment Opportunity is the Law poster. The poster demonstrates to employees that the organization is aware of their obligations.
- Make sure that employees and managers know the company’s anti-discrimination policy and procedures. Define acceptable and unacceptable conduct, then spread the message.
- Train managers on signs of discrimination. If managers can intervene quickly before the issue progresses, they will save the company from an expensive lawsuit.
- To avoid escalation, handle complaints seriously, promptly and decisively. If an employee comes forward with a complaint, follow up and investigate instead of brushing it under the rug.