Group of employees who are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.


What you need to know about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

An overview of Title VII, including who it protects, what it prohibits, and the possible claims employees may attempt to pursue under it

Whether you are an employer or employee, you've likely heard about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Few employment laws are as crucial as this one, particularly regarding allegations of workplace discrimination.

But if you don't know this important legislation's specific details and nuances, don't worry — you're not alone. Fortunately, this article will cover some of the fundamental concepts of Title VII, including who it protects, what it prohibits, and the possible claims employees may attempt to pursue under it. So, let's start with the basics.

What is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — and what does it prohibit?

Title VII is the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Sex, including gender, gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation

Many people are surprised to learn that most jobs in the U.S. are considered at-will employment. At-will employment means that an employer can typically fire an employee for any reason they want — except an illegal reason such as unlawful discrimination — and that's where Title VII of the Civil Rights Act comes in.

An employer cannot take an "adverse employment action" — such as firing, refusing to hire, demoting, refusing to promote, etc. — against an employee or potential employee based on any of these protected characteristics. If they do, the employee might have a discrimination claim.

You may notice that "age" and "disability" aren't listed among the protected groups listed above, and that is because older workers and disabled workers are protected under different federal laws — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), respectively. 

It's also important to note that individual states may create their own discrimination laws that might protect a broader range of employees than any of these federal laws, so employers should also be aware of these laws.

Possible employee claims under Title VII

If an employee believes their employer has engaged in discrimination and other unlawful acts in violation of Title VII, there are several potential legal claims they may pursue, including:

  • Disparate treatment. Disparate treatment is the most obvious form of employment discrimination. It occurs when an employer treats an employee or job applicant differently than other employees because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or sex (similar to laws in education).
  • Disparate impact. This is when a seemingly neutral practice unduly impacts employees in a protected class, often unintentionally. For example, if employees must pass physical strength tests or meet a minimum height — requirements that appear neutral at first glance — it may still have a disparate impact on women or other protected groups. Assuming an employee can prove a disparate impact, the employer would be allowed to show that the policy is necessary for the position and that no alternative policy or requirement would work. 
  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment. Under Title VII, there are two main forms of harassment claims, which include sexual harassment in quid pro quo fashion and hostile work environment. Similar to fraud and security training, employers should have a policy in place for sexual harassment to protect and prevent other illegal activities like bribery.
  • Retaliation. Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against employees or applicants when they assert their rights under the law, including when an employee files a Title VII discrimination charge, opposes an employer practice that violates Title VII, or testifies or participates in a Title VII investigation or proceeding. 
  • Negligence. A Title VII negligence claim usually involves instances in which a co-worker gets an employee fired for discriminatory reasons by making negative or critical statements about the employee, and the employer knows — or should have known — of the co-worker's discriminatory intentions. 

Remember, though, this is not an exclusive list of the potential claims an employer may face under Title VII, not to mention some employees may also attempt to bring additional claims under state law.

Does Title VII apply to all employers?

Simply put, Title VII does not apply to every employer. In fact, as a general rule, Title VII typically only covers private and public sector employers with 15 or more employees. These employees may include:

  • Part-time employees
  • Full-time employees
  • Suspended employees
  • Employees on leave or vacation

You should know that this 15-employee requirement doesn't apply if the employer is the federal government. Also, even if an employer doesn't reach this 15-employee threshold, it doesn't guarantee they can't face employee discrimination claims since state and local laws may give employees other options.

Are all employees protected under Title VII?

The determination is usually pretty straightforward when it comes to who is and who is not a protected employee under Title VII. In fact, Title VII defines an employee as simply "an individual employed by an employer."

Therefore, assuming they work — or are applying to work — for a covered employer as outlined above, Title VII provides discrimination protection for all employees, former employees, and those applying to be employees. However, there are some significant exceptions to this rule. For example, Title VII typically does not cover:

  • Independent contractors
  • U.S. citizens who are working abroad for non-U.S.-controlled businesses
  • Foreign nationals who are working abroad for U.S.-controlled businesses

Not to sound like a broken record, but it's always important to remember to check state and local laws since they may have additional discrimination protections beyond what Title VII provides.

Staying compliant with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Compliance and understanding start with an in-depth analysis of the law and what it means to both employers and employees. If you want more information about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, try the resources available in Practical Law today.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website

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