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Avoiding Discrimination Complaints at Your Business

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

Recently, there have been many examples of class action discrimination suits against major companies in the news. The suit filed at the end of June, 2010, against 24 Hour Fitness for race and gender discrimination is but one example. If you own a small business, how do you protect it from a potential discrimination suit? Here are a few basic ideas and resources to help you consider the problem of employment discrimination.

First, what is discrimination? Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, pregnancy, national origin, religion, disability, citizenship status, and age (if the person is at least 40 years old). Many state and local laws prohibit additional types of discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of marriage, sexual orientation, and weight. Discrimination includes sexual harassment, which is considered to be a form of gender discrimination.

If an employer takes any of the following actions: refuse to hire; discipline; fire; deny training; fail to promote; pay less or demote; or harass, based on any of the above characteristics, it may be considered discrimination.

The most commonly known federal employment discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. It says that employers may not discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, gender, or religion.

If your business is very small, with one to three employees, the vast majority of antidiscrimination laws do not apply to your business. The major exception to this general rule is the federal Equal Pay Act. In addition, there might be a local ordinance or state law that does apply to you.

If you are faced with discrimination complaints, the best way to handle it is to take it seriously and investigate thoroughly, no matter how slight the claim or claims might seem to you. A few basic guidelines for handling discrimination and harassment claims are as follows:

  • keep an open mind
  • treat the complainer with respect
  • do not blame or retaliate against the complainer
  • interview all involved
  • keep it confidential

For a more complete guide to handling complaints, see FindLaw's Guidelines for Handling Discrimination and Harassment Complaints.

If you are faced with a discrimination suit, getting advice from an attorney with experience in employment law is always the best idea. But be proactive; setting up policies that keep your business free from discrimination can lead to a more productive and cohesive work environment and simply, a better business.

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