Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)

Title VII, the federal law that prohibits most workplace harassment and discrimination, covers all private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions that employ 15 or more individuals.

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against individuals because of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex, those protections have been extended to include prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, sex stereotyping, and sexual harassment of employees.

Many states have civil rights laws that include more protected classes—such as marital status and sexual orientation.


The legal theory of harassment evolved out of legal interpretations of the discrimination prohibitions in Title VII. The law itself doesn't mention the term harassment at all. Rather, the law says:

. . . It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise 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.

Using the words “otherwise to discriminate against . . . with respect to . . . terms and conditions of employment” as a jumping off place, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that a hostile work environment will violate the prohibitions of Title VII. When harassment is so pervasive and severe that it actually alters an employee’s terms or conditions of employment and creates an abusive working environment, a violation of the law has occurred.

Title VII and the EEOC

Before an employee can bring a lawsuit against an employer under Title VII, he first must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the EEOC finds that the employee's claim has merit, it may sue on his behalf. Otherwise, it will issue him a "right-to-sue" letter, and he then can file a complaint and begin the litigation process.

Employees and the EEOC can sue for lost wages, benefits, reinstatement, and attorneys' fees. Compensatory damages (damages for wages and emotional distress) are "capped" by Title VII and the amount allowed per employee will vary depending on the size of the employer.