Unlike bigger operations, small business owners tend to take on many important roles themselves rather than hiring experts such as accountants, lawyers, and human resource directors. This might save the owner money, but it can also lead to missed opportunities and legal violations.
One area of the law you want to be sure you understand as a small business owner is federal and state anti-discrimination legislation. In New Jersey, even businesses with only one employee must comply with the Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
New Jersey’s Law Goes Further Than Federal Law
While New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws are similar to federal laws, we are one of the few states that provide more protections for employees than the federal laws do. For starters, while most federal anti-discrimination laws only apply to businesses with 15 or more employees, New Jersey’s laws apply to every small business regardless of size.
Business owners should protect themselves from employment discrimination. Some ground rules to follow include:
Providing Equal Pay for Equal Work
You must pay male and female employees who perform the same work the same wage (The Equal Pay Act of 1963). Differences in pay rates must be based on seniority, merit, production, or any other factor that is not related to sex.
Not Discriminating Against Certain Classes of People
Making adverse employment decisions based solely on an employee’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy status, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, or genetic orientation is illegal under both state and federal law. In New Jersey, LAD also expressly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression, including transgender individuals.
Not Harassing or Allowing Harassment of Protected Classes
It is your responsibility to make sure that your employees understand what constitutes harassment and that it will not be tolerated. If an accusation of harassment is made, it is your duty to investigate the complaint and take action to stop it.
Not Using Employment Policies That Have a Negative Effect on Protected Classes
You might not take an adverse employment action because of a person’s race, sex, age, or other protected status, but do your policies have a negative impact on their success with your company? Examples of discriminatory hiring and promotion practices could include:
- Requiring applicants to be within a certain height or weight range
- Requiring a physical agility test (The Rehabilitation Act of 1973)
- Requiring employees to live in a certain geographic region
- Excluding applicants with a criminal record
These kinds of practices can negatively impact women, older workers, and people of color.
Not Practicing Age Discrimination
While federal law is written to protect workers over the age of 40, the New Jersey law applies to anyone 18 and older. That means that in New Jersey, it is illegal to make any decisions about an applicant or employee based solely on age—whether they are young or old.
Providing Reasonable Accommodations for People With Disabilities
If an employee requests an accommodation for a disability or religious belief, you must make a good faith effort to engage with them to figure out a solution or provide evidence that the change would place an undue burden on your company.
Not Retaliating Against an Employee Who Reports Discrimination
It is illegal to terminate or take other adverse action against an employee because they reported an incident of harassment, discrimination, or other illegal activity. Employees who participate in an investigation of possible discrimination or who speak out against discriminatory practices are also protected under the law.
Informing Employees of the Law
You are responsible for the climate and culture at your company and for the actions of your employees towards their coworkers, so it is important that you inform them of their rights and responsibilities. Federal law requires you to display an “EEO Is the Law” poster in a conspicuous location within the workplace. To further protect yourself and your business, you should also include LAD statutes in your employee handbook and conduct regular training seminars.
How a Business Law Attorney Can Help
Federal and state anti-discrimination laws are complicated, and the consequences of violating them can ruin your small business. Working with an attorney to establish fair hiring practices, write an employee handbook, conduct employee seminars, respond to employee complaints, and handle all other aspects of EEOC, ADA, and LAD compliance is the smart thing to do for your business.
Complying with state and federal anti-discrimination laws does not mean losing the power to make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions, nor does it mean running your company into the ground to accommodate certain workers. By consulting with an experienced attorney, you can establish business practices that comply with the law.
Don’t wait until you are being sued by an employee to call a lawyer. Be proactive and talk to attorney Frank Steinberg today. Contact us to schedule a consultation.