Document Type


Publication Date



Many employers create internal procedures for the resolution of discrimination complaints. We examine internal complaint handlers' conceptions of civil rights law and the implications of those conceptions for their approach to dispute resolution. Drawing on interview data, we find that complaint handlers tend to subsume legal rights under managerial interests. They construct civil rights law as a diffuse standard of fairness, consistent with general norms of good management. Although they seek to resolve complaints to restore smooth employment relations, they tend to recast discrimination claims as typical managerial problems. While the assimilation of law into the management realm may extend the reach of law, it may also undermine legal rights by deemphasizing and depoliticizing workplace discrimination. Civil rights law, in particular Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII), creates administrative and legal channels for redressing complaints regarding equal employment opportunity and affirmative action (EEO/AA). Employers cannot forbid employees to use these formal legal channels to express their EEO/AA complaints, but they can encourage employees to use internal complaint procedures in an attempt to satisfy complainants and to insulate the employer from lawsuits, liability, and intervention by regulatory agencies.To the extent that employers handle EEO/AA complaints internally, they essentially privatize the adjudication of public rights. This has enormous potential to affect the rights of minority and female employees who claim to be the victims of discrimination, as well as the rights of those (primarily white and male) employees who are accused of discrimination. Similarly, the privatization of EEO/AA complaint handling has the potential to affect both employers' liability for discrimination and their practices to prevent and deal with future problems of discrimination. Thus, the personnel within organizations who are charged with handling discrimination complaints (“complaint handlers”) can critically affect the impact of civil rights law within organizations. Since the vast majority of EEO/AA (and other) complaints never reach the courts or even administrative agencies (Miller & Sarat 1981), the internal handling of EEO/AA disputes largely determines the nature of the environment that employees work in and the de facto civil rights in employment. Thus, it is especially important that sociologists of law study the construction of EEO/AA (and other) law within the firm.In this article we examine the role of law in complaint handlers' orientations toward EEO/AA complaints within organizations. In particular, we are interested in how both legal and organizational values shape complaint handlers' conceptions of EEO/AA law and complaint resolution and the implications of these conceptions for the ways they handle discrimination complaints. To address these issues, we conducted semistructured interviews with complaint handlers in ten organizations. The interview data reveal complaint handlers' conceptualization of their work. These data do not necessarily reflect complaint handlers' actions or the complaint-handling process as experienced by the parties to the complaints or by other employees. While the latter also deserve attention, our focus is on complaint handlers' working principles and conceptions of EEO/AA complaint handling, which reveal much about the construction and role of law within organizations.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.