There are many federal and state laws covering discrimination. In brief, you may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, natural origin, disability, genetic information or any other protected characteristic as established by law.
When interviewing candidates, you must ask questions that are relevant to the job. Questions about a candidate’s work history, education, or skill level are relevant. Questions about their country of origin, religion, marital status or age are not. If the candidate has a disability, you cannot disqualify them if they can otherwise perform the job and you can provide a reasonable accommodation.
Likewise, you cannot discriminate against an employee on the basis of race, sex, age, etc. in making pay decisions, promotions, layoffs or firing. This does not mean that you cannot terminate the employment of a worker who is of a certain age, race, sex, etc. It means you cannot fire them for a discriminatory reason; it has to be related to their performance or violation of a company policy.
Firing an employee is an especially sensitive situation for all managers, and is a leading reason for lawsuits and discrimination claims. Good managers know that the best defense is to have a strong progressive disciplinary policy, written down in your employee handbook. Formal, written documentation of any disciplinary meetings, with a witness on hand, is one of the most cost-effective ways to protect yourself if you have to later defend your actions in court.
Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination. This comes in two types; “quid pro quo” harassment is when an employee is offered something, like a job or promotion, in return for sexual favors; “hostile work environment” refers to an overall atmosphere of harassment, whether it is from inappropriate actions, words, jokes, etc. An inappropriate poster on the lunchroom wall may be considered a “hostile work environment.” Crude emails or photos may be harassment. Your responsibility as the owner or senior manager of the business is to set the example for your employees, investigate any claims, and not tolerate discrimination or harassment in the workplace. In addition, if you have managers, they should be trained in the basics of labor law, including non-discrimination and sexual harassment training, how to communicate with others, and how to handle employee disputes and concerns fairly and impartially.
“Setting a good example always starts at the top of the organization. Employees follow the leader.”