HR Management: Laws and Regulations

Laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels regulate how companies conduct staffing. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned most discriminatory hiring practices.

Three sensitive areas of legal concern that managers must comply with are equal opportunity, affirmative action, and sexual harassment, described in the following sections. These areas, as well as other laws, impact all human resource practices.

Equal Employment Opportunity

Individuals covered under Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws are protected from illegal discrimination, which occurs when people who share a certain characteristic, such as race, age, or gender, are discriminated against because of that characteristic. People who have the designated characteristics are called the protected class. Federal laws have identified the following characteristics for protection:

  • Race, ethnic origin, color (for example, African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian)
  • Gender (women, including those who are pregnant)
  • Age (individuals over 40)
  • Individuals with disabilities (physical and mental)
  • Military experience (Vietnam‐era veterans)
  • Religion (special beliefs and practices)

The main purpose of the EEO laws is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity of getting a job or being promoted at work.

Affirmative action

While EEO laws aim to ensure equal treatment at work, affirmative action requires the employer to make an extra effort to hire and promote people who belong to a protected group. Affirmative action includes taking specific actions designed to eliminate the present effects of past discriminations.

Employees are also protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was established through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII. The scope of authority of the EEOC has been expanded so that today it carries the major enforcement authority for the following laws:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991. Reaffirms and tightens prohibition of discrimination. Permits individuals to sue for punitive damages in cases of intentional discrimination and shifts the burden of proof to the employer.
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963. Prohibits pay differences based on sex for equal work.

  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Prohibits discrimination or dismissal of women because of pregnancy alone, and protects job security during maternity leaves.

  • American with Disabilities Act. Prohibits discrimination against individuals with physical or mental disabilities or the chronically ill, and requires that “reasonable accommodations” be provided for the disabled.

  • Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disabilities and requires that employees be informed about affirmative action plans.

Most employers in the United States must comply with the provisions of Title VII. Compliance is required from all private employers of 15 or more persons, all educational institutions, state and local governments, public and private employment agencies, labor unions with 15 or more members, and joint (labor‐management) committees for apprenticeship and training.

Sexual harassment

Few workplace topics have received more attention in recent years than that of sexual harassment. Since professor Anita Hill confronted Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas on national television over a decade ago, the number of sexual harassment claims filed annually in the United States has more than doubled.

Since 1980, U.S. courts generally have used guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to define sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Sexual harassment may include sexually suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature

In a 1993 ruling, the Supreme Court widened the test for sexual harassment under the civil rights law to whether comments or behavior in a work environment “would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived as hostile or abusive.” As a result, employees don't need to demonstrate that they have been psychologically damaged to prove sexual harassment in the workplace; they simply must prove that they are working in a hostile or abusive environment.

Sexual harassment is not just a woman's problem. Recently, a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include same‐sex harassment as well as harassment of males by female coworkers. In the suit that prompted the Court's decision, a male oil‐rig worker claimed he was singled out by other members of the all‐male crew for crude sex play, unwanted touching, and threats.

From management's standpoint, sexual harassment is a growing concern because it intimidates employees, interferes with job performance, and exposes the organization to liability. Organizations must respond to sexual harassment complaints very quickly because employers are held responsible for sexual harassment if appropriate action is not taken. The cost of inaction can be high. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 permits victims of sexual harassment to have jury trials and to collect compensatory damages in cases where the employer acted with “malice or reckless indifference” to the individual's rights.

Employers can take the following steps to help minimize liability for sexual harassment suits:

  1. Offer a sexual harassment policy statement. This statement should address where employees can report complaints, assure confidentiality, and promise that disciplinary action will be taken against sexual harassers.
  2. Provide communication and training programs for supervisors and managers. These programs should emphasize that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
  3. Conduct fair, impartial investigations and base actions on objectively gathered facts. The complainant must be insulated from the kinds of behavior that prompted the complaint.

Other employment laws

Several other laws impact staffing practices as well. The Fair Labor Standards Act specifies the minimum wage, overtime pay rules, and child labor regulations. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act outlaws almost all uses of the polygraph machine for employment purposes. Privacy laws provide legal rights regarding who has access to information about work history and job performance for employees in certain jurisdictions. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, some employees who publicize dangerous employer practices are entitled to legal protection. Table lists additional federal laws that shape HRM practices.