Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects many individuals from various forms of workplace discrimination. If you believe you’re being harassed or discriminated against at work, call a lawyer right away. You may have the right to file an administrative complaint or file a lawsuit against your employer. However, Title VII doesn’t apply to every employer, employee, or situation. You may need to speak to a lawyer about other federal or state laws that protect you from discrimination when Title VII doesn’t.

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When Title VII applies to employers

Title VII covers employers with 15 or more employees in both the private and public sectors, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If you work for a business that only has a few employees and you face discrimination, speak with an attorney about whether you have a state-level claim or whether another federal law applies to your situation.

It also covers state and local government employees, the U.S. government’s executive, judiciary, and legislature branches that are subject to competitive civil service, Congressional entities, employment agencies and their agents, and labor organizations.

Title VII does not apply to the U.S., corporations wholly owned by the U.S., any Native American tribe, certain departments or agencies of the District of Columbia, bona fide private membership clubs that are not labor organizations and are tax exempt, or religious organizations.

What Title VII prohibits

Title VII does not encompass all forms of discrimination. This federal law protects you at work from discrimination based on:

  • Sex
  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion

These are referred to as protected classes. Under the law, protections on the basis of sex include pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, as well as sexual harassment. However, Title VII does not protect you based on characteristics such as age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. If you have been discriminated against for one of these factors or another issue not protected by Title VII, call a civil rights lawyer. You may have a claim under another federal or state employment law. 

Workplaces that are covered by Title VII might not realize their culture is discriminatory until its too late. According to Ann E. Evanko, an employment attorney with Hurwitz & Fine, employers can prevent discrimination claims against their workplace by instituting clear policies against discriminatory language and behavior, and by training all employees in proper conduct. If you're unsure if a coworker's behavior was grounds for a complaint, consider that if something sounds inappropriate, it almost always is.

"If people aren’t aware that the comments they’re making are sexual harassment, they’re going to continue making those comments,” says Evanko. “You want to be sure everyone is well-trained to know what’s appropriate, and what’s not appropriate in the workplace. Would you say it to your daughter? Would you say it to your wife? If you wouldn’t, don’t say it. If you have to think about, is this appropriate or not appropriate, I would say it’s not. If you have to think about it, it’s crossing a line.”

What constitutes discrimination? 

Discrimination comes in many different forms. Generally speaking, discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because of a particular defining characteristic.

Title VII forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment, including:

  • The application and hiring process;
  • Firings or layoffs;
  • Training, apprenticeships, and mentorships;
  • Terms, conditions, and privileges of employment;
  • Job assignments;
  • Fringe benefits; and
  • Compensation.

Employers cannot classify or segregate you in a way that limits or deprives you of opportunities you would have had if you were not a member of a protected class under Title VII, the American Bar Association’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee stated. For example, if you wear religious clothing items, your employer cannot require you to work behind the scenes and refrain from interacting with customers.

Additionally, what discrimination looks like differs based on the type of the covered entity. An employment agency cannot refuse to refer you for a position because of you being a member of a protected class. A labor organization cannot refuse you membership or kick you out of the organization based on your sex, color, race, national origin, or religion.

Discrimination can be one severe situation or a multitude of smaller actions that create a hostile work environment. For instance, it may be clear you were not hired because of your actual or apparent religion. However, you may be hired at a business with a decent salary. Once working in the office, you are consistently on the receiving end of inappropriate jokes, you’re kept away from customers because of your religious garb, and you’re not given the opportunity to advance or obtain raises. All of this can amount to religious discrimination.

Filing a claim

If you choose to file an EEOC claim, the commission will notify the other party of the complaint and investigate. If the EEOC finds your complaint is invalid, it will dismiss it. The EEOC may direct you and the other party toward mediation or attempt to resolve the complaint directly. If a settlement cannot be reached, the EEOC may file a federal lawsuit. Or, the EEOC may notify you of your right to file a lawsuit, which is known as a right to sue letter.

If you believe you have been discriminated against, contact an experienced workplace discrimination lawyer immediately. An attorney can review your situation and advise you of your rights, including your right to file a claim with the EEOC or a state-level department.