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Preventing Workplace Discrimination: Employer FAQ

Both workplace harassment and discrimination are major concerns to small business owners. Even with the best intentions, it can be hard to know how to address employment discrimination until after it happens.

Good employment practices help avoid the worst effects of discrimination and harassment. Here are some frequently asked questions about discrimination on the job and where employers can go for assistance.

What is workplace discrimination?

Discrimination in the workplace is treating an employee or job applicant differently based on membership in a protected class. These can include:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. State laws may differ slightly from federal laws.

What is a hostile work environment?

hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome or offensive conduct becomes so pervasive it creates conditions that are intimidating or abusive. It is also when the conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.

A hostile work environment may include:

  • Offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling
  • Offensive or abusive graffiti, pictures, or objects
  • Bullying, threats, or intimidation
  • Physical assaults, sexual contact, unwanted touching

Any behavior that continues despite requests to stop and is not addressed by management can lead to a hostile work environment.

What employment laws apply to small businesses?

The Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as a manufacturing company with fewer than 500 employees or any other business with annual receipts below $7.5 million. Many businesses are not as small as they believe.

The EEOC provides the following guidance for small business owners and federal employment laws:

Businesses with over 50 employees must follow the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). You must provide eligible workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or recover from serious injury or illness.

What is reasonable accommodation?

Under the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is any change to the workplace or job that allows employees with disabilities to work in the same jobs as employees without disabilities. Reasonable accommodations depend on the nature of the job and the type of disability. For instance, an employee with a limited range of motion in their hands might need voice-activated software to continue using their computer.

Employers must accommodate religious beliefs, medical issues, and pregnancy and childbirth matters. For instance, a female employee who is nursing must have reasonable break periods if she wants to pump breast milk for her infant.

Do I need an anti-discrimination policy?

The EEOC suggests that all business owners have written anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. These policies should contain your company's procedures for reporting discriminatory behavior. They should include examples of discriminatory and harassing behavior.

Your policies should be part of your employee handbook. Employees should receive one during onboarding. Some states, such as California, require mandatory sexual harassment training programs for employees.

How should I handle discrimination complaints?

Take all claims of harassment and discrimination seriously. Never dismiss a complaint as "the guys joking around" or part of your company culture. Keep all complaints confidential. Interview the person making the complaint and the alleged harasser in private. If you have a human resources department, there should be a single person responsible for investigating these cases.

Describe any disciplinary action in your policies. Refer any criminal behavior to law enforcement.

Get Legal Advice

If you have questions about employment decisions or creating your discrimination policies, speak with an employment law attorney in your area right away. Your state laws may differ from federal rules, so talk with someone who knows all legal requirements.

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