Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws have steadily advanced the principles of fairness and equal opportunity for all in the workplace. More specifically, the laws prohibit job-related discrimination based on a wide range of personal characteristics like race, age, gender, religion and certain health conditions.
Prohibiting Intentional Discrimination
Some forms of discrimination represent deliberate attempts to violate the principles of equal opportunity. For example, one employer might always pay men more than women, while another could refuse to interview disabled job applicants. A key purpose of EEO laws is to prevent such intentional behaviors. In this case, the former employer would be in breach of the Equal Pay Act, while the latter would be violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. .
Prohibiting Unintentional Discrimination
An employer may take actions that are not motivated by bias, but still have a prejudicial effect on certain workers. Equal opportunity laws also apply to these unintentional forms of discrimination. For example, the laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees to practice their religions while in the workplace. A dress code that forbids all head coverings or requires work on a holy day would likely violate this principle.
Another key EEO principle is that protection against discrimination should be extended to as many workplaces as possible in both the public and private sectors. Four of the laws apply to all private companies, state and local governments and educational institutions with at least 15 employees: the Civil Rights Act, Equal Pay Act, Americans With Disabilities Act and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act covers a range of other employers, including private firms with at least 20 employees.
EEO laws are enforced at the federal level by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and on the state and local levels by designated Fair Employment Practices Agencies. Any worker who believes she has experienced discrimination has the right to file a complaint with one or more of these bodies. If her complaint is judged to have merit, the EEOC has broad powers to launch an investigation or take action in court unless the dispute is satisfactorily resolved.
Amy Handlin has been writing about government, business and politics since 1999. She is the author of "Be Your Own Lobbyist" and "Government Grief: How to Help Your Small Business Survive Mindless Regulation, Political Corruption and Red Tape." She is also a state legislator and associate professor. Handlin graduated from Harvard and holds advanced degrees in marketing from Columbia and New York University.