Avoid Discrimination and Encourage Diversity

Complying with discrimination laws is not just the right thing to do; it is the law. Smart employers work hard to encourage diversity as well - along the way taking advantage of every employee's creativity, ideas, sense of teamwork and commitment to company success.

Employees are protected from discrimination by a number of laws including:

  • Civil Rights Act
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Equal Pay Act
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • State and local laws

These laws protect employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, sex, age, disability and pregnancy. In addition, almost half the states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in private employment. Some of these states also specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

What areas of employment are covered? Discrimination laws cover practices related to hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, and compensation, just to name a few.

A quick note: Discrimination laws are very specific but also let employers maintain some amount of latitude. As an example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer to make "reasonable accommodations" for an employee with a protected disability. At the same time, it specifies that the accommodation cannot create a financial hardship to the employer. As you can guess, interpreting these two aspects of the ADA can leave a lot of room for confusion. If at any time you are unsure or unclear as to your responsibilities and your rights as an employer, consult with an experienced employment law attorney and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

So where are you, as an employer, most vulnerable to discrimination or harassment charges? Here are a few of the most common possibilities, and steps you can take to minimize the chance of a complaint or litigation:

  • Hiring, promotions, disciplinary actions, and termination. Keep detailed records, consistently follow your internal processes, and make sure all employees - and prospective employees - are treated fairly and equally.
  • Less obvious forms of discrimination. Discrimination based on race or national origin is easy to spot; it can be more difficult to spot discrimination based on age or religious affiliation. As an owner or manager, your job is to ensure that discrimination in all forms is not tolerated.
  • Small businesses without an established human resources department. A human resources department or position can serve as a "watch dog" for discriminatory practices and can also help train employees on how to support diversity. If you run a business without the luxury of a human resources function, you'll need to be extra-vigilant.
  • Satellite locations. Discrimination or harassment is more likely to occur when a small group of employees is assigned to and works at a remote location, because management oversight and presence may be limited.
  • Treating diversity as a legal requirement only. Promoting anti-discrimination practices simply because "they're the law" has been found to create a discriminatory environment. Work hard to promote diversity as an environment that benefits the company and all its employees.

So how can you avoid discrimination and promote diversity? Here are some simple techniques and practices:

  • Treat all employees equally. Act in a fair and consistent manner. Create policies that promote fairness and equality, and follow those policies.
  • Maintain accurate and complete records. Keep well-organized files documenting employee evaluations, disciplinary actions, performance issues, and substantive, performance-related conversations held with employees.
  • Provide different ways for employees to make a complaint. Make it easy for employees to speak up when they feel discriminated against or harassed.
  • Never make statements in regard to race, religion, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or marital status. If your employees make these kinds of statements, counsel them immediately.
  • Create a diverse workforce. Hire based on skills, experience, and fitness for the position. Make sure your hiring practices clearly define the qualifications a prospective employee must meet.
  • Set a great example. Ensure you hold all workers to the same standards. And expect others to do the same.

If you do receive a complaint from an employee:

  • Conduct all investigations promptly and thoroughly. Make sure you follow up after the issue is resolved to ensure the employee not only understands the outcome but also that the employee does not feel that he or she has been retaliated against.
  • Document the results of all complaints and investigations. Note corrective actions taken. Follow up on those actions and monitor the situation closely.
  • Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are unsure of how to respond to an employee complaint, have difficulty resolving a situation, or believe an employee may file a lawsuit, seek advice from a lawyer experienced in employment law. If an employee files a lawsuit, seek legal counsel immediately.