Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Protecting Employees from Race, Sex, Religion, and National Origin Discrimination

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law enacted to prevent discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of the 1964 protects individuals against discrimination in employment. Under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate against employees or job applicants based on characteristics such as race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who participate in complaints or investigations of discrimination, or who otherwise oppose various kinds of discrimination. These provisions apply to all employers in both the private and public sectors, including federal, state, and local governments, that employ 15 or more individuals. In general, Title VII protects employees from discrimination or retaliation in a wide variety of employment processes and circumstances, including:

Assigning work
Measuring performance
Providing benefits

Under Title VII, covered employees or job applicants cannot cannot be treated differently based on their race, religion, sex, or national origin. Additionally, the law provides that employers cannot discriminate against other employees because of their association with co-workers who may be discriminated against based on these protected characteristics. An employer’s policies and practices may be considered discriminatory under Title VII based on disparate treatment or disparate impact. Disparate treatment typically involves an employer’s intentional discrimination against an employee based on his or her protected characteristics. Disparate impact, by contrast, does not necessarily require discriminatory intent. Rather, under a disparate impact theory, an employer’s policy or practice might run afoul of Title VII if it disproportionately harms employees of certain gender or race (for example) as compared to other employees of a different gender or race — regardless of whether the employer intended the policy or practice to have a discriminatory effect.

Title VII is one of several laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a government agency responsible for enforcing and investigating potential violations of federal laws against discrimination in the workplace. These laws include not only Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but also the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), and Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). In general, laws enforced by the EEOC make it illegal for an employer to harass or discriminate against an employee or applicant based on race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Additionally, these laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees who file charges of discrimination with the EEOC or who participate in a discrimination lawsuit or investigation.

An employee who believes his or her rights under Title VII have been violated must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in order to later pursue a Title VII claim in court. Once a charge is filed with the EEOC, the agency is authorized to investigate the complaint against the employer. As noted above, Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees or applicants because they have filed a charge with the EEOC, participated in the investigation of a charge, or otherwise opposed conduct made unlawful by Title VII. If after its investigation the agency finds the employer engaged in illegal discrimination, it may attempt to settle the charge between the employee and employer. If unable to settle such a charge, the EEOC, in an effort to vindicate and protect the rights of the employee or employees, may consider filing a lawsuit in court on their behalf. However, given the agency’s large workload and limited resources, most charges of discrimination — regardless of their merit — do not result in lawsuits filed by EEOC. More frequently, after an investigation, the EEOC terminates its investigation and issues a notice giving the employee the right to pursue a lawsuit in court. After receiving the notice of suit rights, the employee has 90 days within which to file a lawsuit against his or her employer regarding the discrimination at issue in the charge. While Federal employees and job applicants have similar protections to the protections afforded private and state or local government employees, federal employees and applicants have a different complaint process.


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