The concept of equal employment opportunity is firmly rooted in our society. Beginning with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and continuing with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991—the categories of individuals who are protected in federal law from discrimination, harassment and retaliation in all terms and conditions of employment have expanded steadily. State and local laws have also evolved, and continue to evolve, to offer more protections.
Moreover, the consequences for committing discrimination, harassment or retaliation have increased significantly. Most notably, to address claims of employment discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 permits employees to seek compensatory and punitive damages of up to $300,000. State and local laws, in many instances, provide for greater relief than federal law by not limiting the available compensatory and punitive damages.
The first step any employer should take to ensure that all employees work in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and in which they can succeed on their own merits, is to affirm its commitment to the principles of equal opportunity employment. An employer should also specify that it prohibits unlawful discrimination and harassment. Further, managers and supervisors should receive regular training, on at least an annual basis, to ensure they do not violate the terms of these statutes, many of which are complex. In many states, training is required on an annual basis. The legislature’s commitment to equal employment opportunity, anti-discrimination, harassment and retaliation also should be communicated to employees through official postings within the workplace, which are required by state and federal laws. Each employee’s commitment to adhering to the employer’s policies shall be clearly stated in the acknowledgment form to be completed by each employee upon receipt of the personnel manual.
Legislative organizations should make sure to review state and local laws and consult legal counsel to ensure compliance with state and federal requirements when drafting these policies.