Know Your Rights: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Word discrimination underlined in red with definition of the term

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. It generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments. Title VII also applies to private and public colleges and universities, employment agencies, and labor organizations.

Despite Title VII’s passage more than 50 years ago, discrimination in the workplace remains a serious problem. If you have questions about discrimination in the workplace, or if you believe you have faced unlawful discrimination at work, this resource will help you get started.

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What does Title VII do?

“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer … to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

— Title VII, Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment, including

  • Hiring and firing
  • Compensation, assignment or classification of employees
  • Transfer, promotion, layoff or recall
  • Job advertisements
  • Recruitment
  • Testing
  • Use of company facilities
  • Training and apprenticeship programs
  • Fringe benefits
  • Pay, retirement plans and disability leave
  • Other terms and conditions of employment

Title VII also prohibits retaliation against someone for asserting her rights under Title VII. For more information on retaliation, see this guidance on retaliation from the EEOC here.

What should I do if I believe I have been discriminated against under Title VII?

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against under Title VII, you have the right to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing many anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC’s website will help you with instructions on filing a charge.

Even if you aren’t yet ready to file a charge, you can contact the EEOC to speak with a counselor about your legal rights. You do not need to hire a lawyer to file a charge, although it is advisable to discuss your options with an attorney or the EEOC before filing a formal charge.

How long do I have to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC?

Under Title VII, in general, you need to file within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place (for example, your last paycheck) in order to preserve your legal rights. The deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency, known as a Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA), enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.

You are still able to file a charge within these limitations, even if you do not work for the offending employer anymore. Visit the EEOC’s website for full instructions on filing a charge.

What will the EEOC do after I file a charge of discrimination?

After you have filed a charge of discrimination, the EEOC will notify your employer of your complaint and begin an investigation. The EEOC may then take a number of different paths to try to reach a resolution:

  • The EEOC may attempt to settle your complaint or may refer you and your employer to a mediator.
  • If you are unable to reach a mutually agreed-upon settlement, and the defendant is a private employer, the EEOC may file a lawsuit in federal court.
  • Finally, the EEOC may simply choose to dismiss the charge or issue you a “right to sue” letter, which will formally notify you of your right to sue in court.

If you decide to file a lawsuit before the EEOC completes its process, you may request a “right to sue” letter earlier on.

What is the difference between the Equal Pay Act and Title VII?

Title VII’s prohibited practices are broader than those covered by the Equal Pay Act (EPA). While the EPA only prohibits pay discrimination based on sex, Title VII bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin, as well as sex.  For example, workplace harassment is covered under Title VII, but not the EPA.

I’m not sure if I want to file an EEOC charge just yet. What steps can I take to protect myself?

  • Keep a record of any perceived discrimination. Write down the date, time and place of the incident as soon as possible, and be sure to include what was said and who was there. Keep a copy of these notes at home, as they will be useful if you file a complaint with your company or decide to take legal action.
  • Know your rights. Talk to your human resources department, union representative and/or review your employee handbook to learn about local policies. Your employer may have a designated Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or an established method for resolving complaints, such as mediation.
  • Maintain records of your work. Continue to perform your job well. Keep copies at home of your job evaluations and any letters or memos that demonstrate your good performance. Your boss may try to defend discriminatory actions by criticizing your job performance.  These records will provide evidence to dispute these criticisms. 
  • Seek support from friends and family. Discrimination at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of fighting discrimination can be very stressful.
  • Speak to an EEOC counselor. You can contact the EEOC to talk to a counselor about your legal rights whether you choose to file a claim or not. Additionally, the EEOC may investigate and/or offer mediation services to help resolve your complaint.

Can my employer take action against me for filing a discrimination charge or speaking up about a potential Title VII violation?

No. Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against you for filing a charge of discrimination or speaking out against discrimination in your workplace. It also protects you from retaliation if you choose to participate in an investigation, proceeding or hearing on behalf of a co-worker who you believe has had his or her rights violated under Title VII. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you observe discrimination in your workplace.


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