Being an equal opportunity employer is harder than it looks. Even when you believe you've done everything right, you may still face complaints under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This regulatory body was created to help enforce laws in place that promote diversity in the workplace. The legislation was designed to prevent discrimination against employees according to various protected characteristics like race, gender, and age. While these laws have their limits, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers employers with more than 15 employees. Naturally, this extends to colleges and universities.
While awareness of EEO guidelines has increased over the years, the commission still receives more than 90,000 official complaints each year. Many escalate to expensive, time-consuming lawsuits. If you're facing such complaints, you're legally obligated to cooperate with investigations. College employees have two main objectives during this process: to prevent the charges from becoming lawsuits and constructing a defense if things do escalate. There's no doubt about it: mistakes made during this process can cost you serious time and money.
What is the EEOC?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also known as the EEOC, is the organization tasked with enforcing laws in regards to discrimination in the workplace. It was created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide oversight for employers across the country. The EEOC holds hearings, interprets the law, litigates discrimination cases, and investigates claims of discrimination. The organization also attempts to mediate settlements between employers and their employees.
Any time Congress passes a law prohibiting discrimination, the EEOC issues new regulations that interpret the new law. The EEOC can also issue regulations when a law is amended or changed, or any time the Supreme Court clarifies existing laws. These regulations help define employment law as we know it. Some of the laws enforced by the EEOC include:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, and nation of origin.
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was created to clarify that pregnancy discrimination is indeed a form of illegal discrimination.
- The Equal Pay Act, legislation that requires employers to pay men and women employees equally for equal work.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects disabled job candidates and employees from discrimination on the basis of their disabilities. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers.
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a piece of legislation that prohibits age discrimination against applicants and employees aged 40 or older.
These are just some of the laws the EEOC helps to enforce. As employment law evolves, so too does the EEOC.
Defining EEOC Protected Status
Employees are protected from discrimination in the workplace thanks to employment laws and the EEOC. Applicants, employees, and former employees are all protected on the basis of color, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), disability, gender, and age. Applicants and employees are also protected from retaliation for filing a complaint of discrimination or participating in an investigation of possible discrimination.
The EEOC classifies employees as anyone who works part time, full time, or on a temporary or seasonal basis. Volunteers are protected by the EEOC, too. So long as an organization has at least 15 employees on staff, they are subject to federal employment discrimination laws. This includes virtually all universities and colleges across the country.
How EEO Complaints Arise Against Colleagues and Supervisors
EEO complaints in the world of academics can arise in a number of ways. Allegations of harassment and retaliation are common. When a supervisor fails to address an employee's concerns, they may escalate their complaint to the EEOC. Complaints may also arise when a supervisor appears to favor one employee over another. Sometimes, colleagues receive EEO complaints when they are acting as a temporary supervisor.
There are a million possibilities for EEO violations on college campuses. Professors, athletic coaches, graduate students who teach courses, deans, resident assistants, and administrative employees all fall under federal employment discrimination law. A complaint can be filed against any faculty or staff member – essentially, any employee – at a university or college. Once a complaint has been made, the institution is required to open an investigation.
Receiving an EEOC Complaint
It can be scary to learn someone has filed a complaint against you or your team. It's important to educate yourself about the possibilities that lie ahead and to reconsider the events that led to the complaint being fired. Consider what law may have been violated, who was allegedly involved, and when the alleged action happened. Some actions are actually barred by a statute of limitations, so it's important to know exactly when an incident or incidents actually occurred.
Next, see if any documents are referenced in the complaint. Begin conducting an investigation of your own – does your university or college have a record of the alleged unlawful conduct? Did anyone take action to resolve the conflict? The answers to these questions can help you plan your next steps. Preserve any records relating to the allegations and alert the team responsible for responding to EEO violations. They can help you understand whether you need inside counsel, outside counsel, or the involvement of Human Resources.
Legal Defense Against EEO Complaints
EEOC charges often contain just a paragraph or two of complaints. As you develop your defense, resist the urge to put minimal effort into your response. Instead, provide a comprehensive explanation that details the circumstances surrounding the incident in question. By giving the agency all the facts upfront, you can nip the issue in the bud early. Demonstrate that there were indeed legitimate reasons for making the decision you made.
Next, use documentation to fortify your defense. If you have documents like attendance records, sales reports, or emails to back up your actions, consider including them in your response to the EEOC. Anything that helps prove that the events happened as you say they did can prove useful. You can also use previous documentation to illustrate consistent decision-making. For instance, if the charging party argues their termination was motivated by discrimination against women, explain instances when you terminated men for similar conduct.
In recounting your version of events, keep in mind that the EEOC doesn't know your college, department, or team. Share important contextual details that help fill in the gaps for investigators. Consider why the charging party's behavior concerned you. Would it be obvious to outsiders? If the answer is no, you may need to explain your motivations in more detail.
Maintain confidentiality during EEO investigations. Information about the charges should be kept close to the vest, especially if the charging employee is still actively employed by the college or university. If colleagues ask you to weigh in over the watercooler, encourage them to be honest with investigators but keep mum on your own opinions – they could come back to haunt you if you're not careful.
Mistakes to Avoid
While you might be tempted to ignore EEOC complaints, this is a bad idea. College employees are required to cooperate with investigations into discriminatory employment practices. While you may want to check with your school's Human Resources department or your supervisor before proceeding, disregarding EEOC complaints altogether is a setup for failure.
Another common mistake college employees make when responding to EEO complaints is failing to be proactive. When faced with the law, extensive documentation is the best approach. Establish an investigation plan in advance, then go forth collecting document reviews, statements from other employees, and data pertaining to the complaint. This strengthens your case and helps bolster any internal complaint handling process already in place.
A timely investigation into allegations of discrimination can help ensure you're consistent in your statements to officials. A position statement must be carefully crafted if you hope to explain your conduct. Make no mistake about it: being accused of discrimination can be shocking, painful, and confusing. After the initial panic has subsided, you may be tempted to enhance your statement to the court with new details. This kind of inconsistency won't be looked upon kindly by officials, though.
Rather than risk your reputation down the line, start with a clear, factual account of what happened. It'll be easier than revising your statement later, and you'll come across as more transparent and helpful in the eyes of investigators.
Following the EEO Investigation
Once an EEO investigation has concluded, a Report of Investigation (ROI) will be prepared by investigators and given to the complaining party. The supervisor or colleague accused of EEO violations, however, will typically not be informed that the investigation has finished. They may be left wondering what transpired in the complaint and investigation process.
Next, the EEO complainant can request an EEOC hearing or a Final Agency Decision (FAD). Complainants typically request hearings because FADs are internal agency decisions. At this point, the accused supervisor or colleague is unlikely to hear any new developments unless subjected to disciplinary action or being called for a deposition.
EEOC Investigation Outcomes
EEOC investigators will typically make one of three determinations after concluding their investigations:
- The EEOC may be unable to conclude that discrimination occurred. The charging party is provided a Notice of Rights and Dismissal. Should they wish to proceed, the charging party has 90 days to file a lawsuit against the school or university.
- The EEOC may determine reasonable cause that discrimination did indeed occur. Both parties will receive a letter of determination inviting them to resolve the charge through conciliation.
- When conciliation proves unsuccessful, the EEOC may decide not to litigate. The charging party will then receive a Notice of the Right to Sue, giving them 90 days to file a lawsuit.
Mediation can be a good solution for employees accused of discrimination. It's a free, confidential practice that can save serious time and money. It also allows you and the charging party to design your own solution to the issue in a mutually beneficial way. The one drawback? You have to be willing to accept the consequences of mediation. If you're not willing to make some concessions, mediation may not be the right path for your particular situation.
Legal Representation During the EEO Process
It's important for college employees to remember that university lawyers are not their own. University attorneys represent the school and its best interests – not the best interests of any individual employee. This point is often confusing for employees, as they may assume that the school's legal team is representing them and the school at the same time. This is not the case. It's important, therefore, for college employees to retain their own legal representation when facing an EEOC complaint.
Universities and colleges have reputations to uphold. They may do anything in their power to resolve EEO complaints, even if it comes at the expense of the employee accused of discrimination. If you're hoping to protect your job and your own personal reputation, you'll want to seek the representation of your own college employee EEO violation defense attorney.
Protecting College Employees Nationwide
Nobody wants to face allegations that they've been discriminatory. Unfortunately, EEOC investigations, mediation, and conciliation can take years to complete. In the meantime, your personal reputation and future career may be on the line. If you're involved in an investigation and don't have personal representation, you'll want to contact an experienced college employee EEO violations attorney as soon as possible.
It takes 182 days on average for the EEOC to investigate a charge. Delaying your response to EEO investigations can extend this average significantly. Once an investigator contacts you for details, make every effort to respond professionally and promptly. Of course, it's a good idea to consult with your own personal attorney before proceeding. Don't wait to contact a college employee EEO violation attorney as soon as you learn of a complaint against you.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team advise and represent college employees across the country. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation now.