Doing the Right Thing

Playing fair and maintaining professional relationships with employees can help employers stay out of court

When you enter Mullanes Bar & Grill in Brooklyn, N.Y., you may not see a familiar face, but you’ll likely see a similar one.

Like the city it calls home, the Irish pub reflects diversity in every aspect, from the menu to the management. According to the owner, having the best, whether it’s beer or busboys, is the key to success.

“I hire everyone,” says owner Dave Finnagan. “Whoever is most qualified – black, white, Asian, Spanish – gets the job.”

Hiring people based only on their qualifications, as Finnagan’s does, is the ideal, says Nancy Boyd, deputy commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s New York District, and often leads to better job performance – and fewer problems down the road.

Personal Lives are Private Lives

Discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sexual preference has no place in the workplace and must be taken seriously.

In 2006, employees filed more than 75,000 claims with the U.S. EEOC accusing employers of discriminatory business practices. Sixty-five percent of the employees said they felt they were treated unfairly because of race, gender or sexual preference. Many of the remaining allegations were from employees who felt slighted because of their religious affiliation.

To protect themselves, business owners should stick to asking applicants about their proven abilities, education, skills and experience – and avoid personal questions while interviewing and recruiting, Boyd says.

There’s No Free-Fire Zone

While small business owners tend to be closer to their employees, the workplace is no free zone for social prejudices.

“Everyone is entitled to personal preferences or opinions, but they never give license to discriminate against another in the workplace,” says Liz Winfeld, founder of Common Ground, a Denver-based, workplace-diversity consulting firm, and the author of Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace (Haworth Press, 2005, $39.95). “That is the reason for workplace Equal Employment Opportunity laws, or laws like Title VII.

“We unfortunately do need to legislate in advance of personal preferences. That’s why the work I do is focused on behavior, not beliefs.”

By Law, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex or religion. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) serve as guidelines for fair treatment in the workplace. In addition, each state has its own laws.

The size of your business determines which laws apply. Federal laws typically apply to business with 15 or more employees, says John Schmelzer, EEOC acting director of field coordination programs.

“But many states have laws that apply even if you just have one,” he explains.

Which is to say that all companies, no matter their size, must protect themselves against potential lawsuits. How to do it is clearly laid out.

3 Steps to Compliance

  1. It’s most important to select employees by objective standards. When interviewing candidates, base your choices on resume qualifications and references – not just on whom you like.
  2. Be sure to distribute and discuss your company’s anti-harassment policy with all workers.
  3. Keep an open-door policy. You’re responsible for ensuring that you – and your managers – treat employees fairly. Addressing inappropriate behavior before it becomes a major issue can help prevent huge fallout.

Unfortunately, following all the rules won’t necessarily prevent a claim. If that happens, remember the EEOC doesn’t take sides.

“The EEOC is not advocacy for the charging party,” Schmelzer says. “We’re there to investigate.”

In short, if the law comes knocking, don’t assume it’s a closed case. The best defense is a good offense, so keep detailed records of all grievances by and against employees so you’re prepared for the worst.

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