Workplace discrimination charges hit all-time high in 2010

The EEOC said a record number of people filed lawsuits against private employers last year. What is responsible for the increase?

According to legal experts, anytime the economy gets shaky, the number of discrimination charges against private employers spikes. However, even seasoned HR pros were surprised by last year's numbers: The number of charges filed with the EEOC rose to nearly 100,000, up 7% from the year-earlier period and 21% from fiscal 2007.

Some think that this spike says less about increasing discrimination in the workplace than about renewed efforts by the EEOC to educate people about what constitutes discrimination and how to exercise their rights.

Also there was such a high number of layoffs last year that you can expect more lawsuits claiming unlawful firings.

Another interesting note is that last year, the number of accusations of employer retaliation (retaliation against an employee for complaining internally or with the EEOC) outnumbered racial-discrimination charges for the first time since the EEOC started operating in 1965. Retaliation lawsuits tend to fare better with juries (are easier to prove) and get higher settlements.

The EEOC said it collected more than $404 million from employers on behalf of employees, its highest annual total ever.