HR Support on Protected Classes in the Workplace

Editor's Note: Make sure that you have a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination.

Beth ZollerOverview: To prevent and respond to employee discrimination based on protected class status, an employer must have zero-tolerance policy against discrimination and communicate to their workforce that discrimination against any individual based on protected class status will not be tolerated.

Employers should understand that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion and national origin. Among the other federal laws that prohibit discrimination are the Americans with Disabilities Act (disability), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (genetic information) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (age). State laws generally prohibit discrimination against the same classes protected by federal law. However, some state laws go further and consider gender identity/sexual orientation, unemployment status, and marital status to be protected classes.

An employer should implement a policy against discrimination and make sure that all employees and supervisors receive training on the policy. An employer should develop and implement policies and practices that are facially neutral and do not discriminate. Further, employers should establish a multi-channeled complaint system and promptly respond to all discrimination complaints by immediately investigating and if necessary, take corrective measures and impose discipline.

Trends: There is a great deal of movement on the federal and state level to expand the protected classes under equal employment opportunity law. Those protected under discrimination laws have advanced well beyond the traditional protected classes of race, sex, age, and disability to include genetic information, military status, transgender status, individuals with caregiving responsibilities and even unemployment status. As a result, employers can reasonably anticipate a greater number of lawsuits. Further, employers should know that there is also a trend towards class actions and allegations of widespread bias and discrimination by multiple plaintiffs. Employers need to know how to prevent and effectively respond to such claims. Additionally, the EEOC has identified the following as some priorities in its Strategic Enforcement Plan: targeting recruiting and hiring practices that discriminate against racial, ethnic and religious groups, older workers, women, and individuals with disabilities; protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers; and addressing emerging issues in equal employment law based on societal legal, judicial and demographic changes (discrimination based on disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity).

Author: Beth Zoller, JD, Legal Editor

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HR guidance on how to develop and implement policies to prevent and respond to discrimination claims against protected classes and ensure an equal opportunity workplace.