Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The EEOC is responsible for many late twentieth century changes in the hiring, promotion, and dismissal procedures of American businesses. By enforcing antidiscrimination laws, the agency has forced businesses to diversify their workforces and to follow regulations that allow the government to intervene into some of the most basic business decisions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964 placed employment discrimination at the forefront of the legal system. The act forbade discrimination in hiring, promotion, or dismissal on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. Suddenly, business practices once deemed lawful became grounds for a federal lawsuit. To aid in the enforcement of this law, Congress created the U.S. Employment;regulation ofEqual Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and granted it the authority to define the different elements of employment Discrimination;workplacediscrimination, establish the procedures for investigating claims of discrimination, and collect evidence of illegal acts.Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Commission Functions

The EEOC changed the relationship between employer and employee, creating and enforcing rules affecting some of the basic policies used by business. Prior to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the formation of the EEOC, employers could hire, fire, promote, or demote employees for a variety of reasons or for no reason at all. Employers could dismiss employees based on their religious beliefs, gender, race, or ethnicity. Many corporations limited job opportunities and promotions for women, placing them in clerical jobs and preventing them from overseeing male employees. Racial and ethnic minorities also had their employment opportunities limited to low-paying, low-skill jobs that reduced their chances for promotion. Such policies were considered part of business, the right of employers to choose their employees without government interference.

The EEOC changed that philosophy, enforcing federal laws that limited the rights of business and created a right to a job free from discrimination. Suddenly, business decisions once considered part of the private domain became public record. Complying with government regulations and satisfying government record-keeping requirements placed severe limitations on the justifications businesses could use for choosing new employees. Personnel departments became integral and growing parts of businesses, as hiring became a formal process. The involvement of the EEOC in hiring decisions made hiring employees more tedious and time-consuming for any business.


As the commission became more powerful, it regulated the most minute parts of the interviewing and hiring process, creating guidelines for the wording of advertisements for job openings and rules governing where and for how long ads were to be placed. Companies were required to maintain records for all applicants, including information on their gender and race, as proof that they were following EEOC rules. The choosing and interviewing of applicants raised even more issues for businesses, as the EEOC forbade interviewers from asking questions pertaining to age, marital status, previous employment, and a host of other topics previously used to gauge the employability of an applicant.

Failure to abide by these regulations would result in federal lawsuits being filed, charging a company with discrimination. The EEOC forced many corporations to pay fines and large settlements to applicants who were not hired. They then had to restructure their hiring processes to prevent the continued appearance of discrimination.

The threat of legal action also affected how and when employees were dismissed from their positions. Because dismissed employees could sue, claiming discrimination in their removal from their job, many employers were forced to document closely the work habits of employees, collecting information that might be used to support the decision to fire them. Such a long process harmed businesses by increasing the time and costs associated with firing employees while forcing them to keep workers deemed incompetent or inefficient simply out of fear that a dismissal might provoke a lawsuit.

Promotion policies were also affected. Women;in business[business]Women and racial or ethnic minorities rarely rose through the corporate ranks prior to enactment of the 1964 law, as the “glass ceiling” kept these groups in a subordinate position. With discrimination in promotion forbidden after 1964, businesses began to adopt deliberate policies of dividing promotions according to gender and racial factors, publicizing the number of nonwhite and women employees who held high-level corporate jobs as proof of nondiscrimination. Promotion policies changed more slowly than did hiring, as rising through the corporate system required years of seniority and achievement.

During the 1970’s, the relationship between the EEOC and business turned more negative, as the agency was granted the authority to sue private businesses when employees claimed discrimination in hiring, firing, or promotion decisions. The 1972 Equal Opportunity Act of 1972Equal Opportunity Act granted that authority, then expanded the scope of antidiscrimination law to include state and local governments and public educational institutions. The agency aided those claiming discrimination, enforcing their civil rights and no longer requiring employees to engage in expensive court litigation to enforce their bias claims. The EEOC could also appeal unfavorable rulings from trial courts, having the resources to carry those appeals through the process, an opportunity few private litigants enjoyed. The threat of a lawsuit would also pit businesses against the unlimited funds of the government, usually forcing a business to settle out of court and agree to further government regulation of its practices.

Business faced a change in discrimination law in 1971. A Supreme Court decision involving the Duke Power Company changed the standard of proof in discrimination cases. Under the decision, a business was considered guilty of employment discrimination if it was statistically shown that its employment policies led to a smaller percentage of minority-group members being employed by the company than lived in the area. The disparity between the racial, gender, or ethnic makeup of a company’s workforce and that of the local population constituted evidence of discrimination. This ruling made it easier for the EEOC to win lawsuits against employers.

Changing EEOC

The EEOC was also responsible for promoting affirmative action programs, either on a voluntary basis or as part of a legal settlement. These programs emphasized race and gender in hiring, promotion, and dismissal, favoring women and racial minorities over men and nonminority workers. Businesses found it easier to institute affirmative action policies, as they would protect the businesses from EEOC lawsuits. The change from a Democratic to a Republican administration in Washington, D.C., during the 1980’s saw the EEOC switch its enforcement to a new form of discrimination.

The Ronald Reagan administration changed the agency’s focus on discrimination against minorities to a focus on the consequences of antidiscrimination policies. Affirmative action, once seen as a solution to past discrimination, became a target of the EEOC. Another change came as the commission focused on individual claims rather than group assertions of discrimination, clearing a backlog of cases while no longer emphasizing group rights. Suddenly, business found itself caught between a government that saw affirmative action as a form of racial discrimination and private individuals who threatened lawsuits if affirmative action policies were not carried out.

By the 1990’s, business had adapted to the demands of the EEOC, even as the agency had acquired additional duties. The passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) created an entirely new class of employment discrimination, as businesses were required to make reasonable accommodations to allow disabled persons to work. A whole range of accommodations were mandated to allow the blind, the deaf, and those in wheelchairs to use the workplace. Disabilities became another topic that could not be discussed in job interviews. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the EEOC had become an established federal agency, having dramatically changed the methods used by businesses in hiring, firing, and promotions, while changing the face of the workforce through enforcement of antidiscrimination principles.

Further Reading
  • Burstein, Paul. Discrimination, Jobs, and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Describes the political aspects of job discrimination lawsuits and how enforcement of these laws against business has affected the economic climate.
  • Busse, Richard. Employees’ Rights. Napierville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004. General guide to the antidiscrimination laws that apply to employees and how those laws are used to defend employees’ rights if discrimination occurs.
  • Cavanagh, Matt. Against Equality of Opportunity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Challenging the view that equality is a positive force in society, Cavanagh criticizes government’s attempts to force equal outcomes through legislation.
  • Guerin, Lisa, and Amy Delpo. Essential Guide to Federal Employment Law. Berkeley, Calif.: NOLO, 2006. Broad-based examination of race, gender, age, and disability laws as applied to employment and business.
  • Segrave, Kerry. Age Discrimination by Employers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. One of the duties of the EEOC is investigating age discrimination in the workplace, and this book defines age discrimination and discusses how the government has sought to ban it.

Affirmative action programs

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights movement

Supreme Court and labor law

Women in business

Categories: History