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Understanding federal laws on employee discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Last year, U.S. employees filed a record number of legal complaints claiming they suffered discrimination at work.

You know that U.S. anti-discrimination laws require managers to treat all applicants and employees equally. But what, specifically, do the laws require of supervisors and managers? Here’s a rundown:

AGE.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act says you can’t discriminate in any way against applicants or employees 40 or older because of age.

That’s why it’s important to never take a person’s age (or proximity to retirement) into account when making decisions on hiring, firing, pay, benefits or promotions. Avoid any comments about an employee’s age. Base your management decisions solely on the person’s ability to do the job.

RACE.
The federal Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate in any employment matter based on a person’s race. Currently, more employee complaints are filed over race discrimination than any other type of job discrimination (more than 33,000 claims in 2008).

Also, the EEOC says managers must also avoid race bias based on a person’s marriage to or association with someone of a particular race.

This law applies regardless of whether the discrimination is directed at blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos or people of any other race, color or ethnicity.

NATIONAL ORIGIN. This type of discrimination relates to treating employees or applicants less favorably because they come from a particular place, because of their ethnicity or accent, or because they have a particular ethnic background.

GENDER. Various laws make it unlawful to discriminate because of a person’s sex in hiring, termination, promotion, pay or any other employment terms. Those laws also prohibit employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about abilities based on gender.

PREGNANCY.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits job discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions.” You can’t deny a job or promotion merely because an employee is pregnant or had an abortion. She can’t be fired for her condition or forced to go on leave. Pregnant employees must be permitted to work as long as they are able to perform their jobs.

The law requires managers to treat pregnant employees the same as other workers who have similar limitations.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates the Civil Rights Act.

When does it cross the line? The EEOC says, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

RELIGION. Managers can’t treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices. You also must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs and practices, unless it causes an “undue hardship” on the organization. For example, that may mean giving employees leave time to attend religious services or allowing them to wear religious jewelry.

DISABILITY.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 makes it illegal to discriminate against people with qualifying disabilities. New ADA amendments that took effect at the start of 2009 broadened the definition of “disability,” meaning many more employees are eligible for accommodations and job protection.

The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to the job for employees with disabilities.

Also, you can’t ask about a person’s disability during the hiring phase. And you must keep employees’ medical-related info confidential and to prevent harassment of disabled employees.

RETALIATION. Federal laws make clear that it’s illegal for employers to fire, demote, harass or otherwise retaliate against employees who’ve filed a discrimination charge or participated in a discrimination investigation.

The lesson: Hands off complainers. Never try to “get back at” employees who complain about discrimination, safety or financial violations. Even if a complaint is frivolous, organizations can still be hit with a retaliation lawsuit if a manager tries to “get even” with the employee who filed the claim.


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