5 Things Every Small Business Needs to Know about Employment Discrimination

By Jeff Gregory

You worked hard to get your company going. Business is picking up and you have a nice dependable group of employees. The more success you have, the more you realize that you need to protect your investment. One place that is easy to safeguard, but is often overlooked by small business owners is the prevention of employment discrimination. Here are five basic things about employment discrimination to keep in mind when operating your business.

You Own a Business; You Aren’t a King

One thing I hear a lot from business owners in the performance of my job is, “I worked hard to build my business and I will run it any way I want!” Unfortunately for them, the law isn’t impressed with their achievements. There are many laws that govern business such as wage requirements, tax collection, health and safety regulations, etc. One that is often disregarded is employment discrimination law.

How Many Employees You Have is Important

If you have 15 or more employees, you are subject to federal discrimination laws. That means that employees or potential employees cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, sex, age, religion, or national origin. Businesses with less than 15 employees are not accountable under the federal law, but may be subject to state laws which are similar but usually have more stringent elements. For example, in California, a business is subject to state civil rights laws if they have only five employees. Check with your state’s civil rights commission to see where your business falls under state law.

You Don’t Have to Intend to Discriminate to be Liable

I often discover that business owners that are charged with discrimination are surprised because they had no intention of discriminating. The law is less concerned with intent than it is facts. For instance, investigators look for examples of disparate treatment (or differential treatment). That means that you must treat every employee within the same position (and seniority, etc.) in your company the same. If an employer gives one employee preferential treatment in work hours or duties, he/she may be found liable even if there are other non-discriminatory reasons for this treatment.

Allowing Workplace Romance is Unwise

This kind of fraternization lends itself to a hostile work environment and sexual harassment complaints. As most of us have learned, relationships often go bad. When they go bad at work, frequently there are legal consequences. This is especially true when one of the participants is in a position of authority.

You Can’t Get Mad OR Even

When a discrimination complaint is made at a business, the work environment becomes very uncomfortable. Employers feel betrayed and often unjustly accused. It is natural to want to terminate the charging employee to make the work day more bearable. Don’t do it! Employees are protected from retaliation from their employers after making a discrimination complaint. Even so, many employers try to do an end run around this law and “build a case” against the employee by citing other reasons this person deserves termination. However, it isn’t worth the risk of additional charges.

You can find out more about employment discrimination at the U.S. EEOC website.

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Jeff Gregory
Jeff Gregory is the Executive Director of the Henderson-Henderson County Human Relations Commission and a freelance writer covering discrimination, civil rights and employee relations topics.

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