From the individual employee’s standpoint, managers and other company leaders are your organization. Executives and compliance personnel make policies to reflect the legal and ethical standards workers are expected to measure up to. But managers must apply, interpret, and execute the policies and legal standards pragmatically based on concrete contingencies employees encounter.
Yes, the law holds employers (that is, organizations) responsible for ensuring employee rights are protected. However, employers can only act through responsible human beings — your leaders and managers.
Managers, in particular, are on the front lines of making sure employers appropriately follow employment laws. This means that managers need to have at least a high-level awareness of the essential employment law concepts.
That’s why it’s important to make sure your managers know the employment law basics.
1. Discrimination & Harassment
Managers may not fire or refuse to hire, limit employment opportunities, benefits or pay, or otherwise discriminate based on:
- Race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Discrimination includes harassment based on any of these protected characteristics. For example, sexual harassment is harassment based on sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Age, if the worker is over 40 years of age. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
- Immigration status. While employers aren’t allowed to hire anyone who is not authorized to work in the US, they can’t discriminate against workers based immigration status. Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)
- Genetic information (genetic tests or other medical information of the worker or their family), including disclosures that aren’t properly business-related. Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008(GINA)
- Disability, including by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation that would permit the worker to perform their core job duties. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
- The rights of employees to get together to discuss or try to improve working conditions — even if they don’t belong to a union. National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
The takeaway is that managers need to focus on helping employees to do their jobs, not on characteristics or activities that the law protects. Nor may managers retaliate against workers for complaining about discrimination or harassment. Managers must treat all employees fairly and equally.
2. Protected Leave Laws
Employees who are eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may take time off from work for the birth of their child, to adopt a child, or to care for their own or a specified family member’s serious health condition. If the family member is called to active duty in the armed forces, the employee may also be entitled to qualifying exigency leave under the FMLA.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) protects veterans and reservists from discrimination and retaliation for taking time off to serve in the armed services.
Managers should treat employees who have taken or plan to take any kind of protected leave no differently from employees who have not taken such leave. This also means that managers may not penalize employees in any way for taking protected leave.
3. Compensation & Overtime
Managers may require employees to work extra hours at times, especially when facing a deadline or time-sensitive project. Managers often need to keep track of how many hours employees wor, and make sure they permit employees to take any break times mandated by state and federal law.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets the federal minimum wage and requires that covered employees are paid time-and-a-half if they work overtime (more than 40 hours per week). But not all employees are covered by the FLSA (or state law equivalents).
These workers are “exempt” employees. HR and other compliance personnel are usually responsible for determining which employees are exempt, according to specified legal criteria. This means that managers need to be in-the-know as to which employees are not exempt from these laws before assigning extra work hours or modifying break times.
Managers need to ensure that workplace safety is a top priority. The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace, including any necessary training for managers and employees.
If workers are injured during work despite all the best safety precautions, they may be eligible for worker’s compensation, which could include time off to recover or even permanent disability.
Managers must not discourage workers from using proper safety precautions or penalize workers for refusing to work in unsafe conditions or for exercising their right to worker’s compensation. No matter what other production goals or quotas managers may have, there’s no excuse for cutting corners when it comes to worker safety.
5. State and Local Laws
This article has focused on the major federal laws that managers need to be familiar with. Since this article is short, we weren’t able to discuss all the important federal employment laws, nor go into much detail about the ones we did cover.
But it’s still important to point out that many states and cities have similar laws, several of which are stricter than the federal laws. For example, several states list additional protected characteristics and activities and have stricter wage and hour laws. Managers need to understand that they are responsible for complying with federal employment laws, in addition to state and local laws.
What Managers Need to Know
What’s important here is that managers are aware of the major employment rights workers have. Experts agree on the need for legal awareness and legal literacy for managers. If managers know the basic concepts (for example, that there are protected characteristics and activities), they are more likely to take care when a workplace situation implicates these rights. Managers do not need to memorize every protected characteristic or know the intricacies of FMLA law.
What they do need to know is that employees must be treated fairly and equally based on their work; that certain workplace absences are protected; to be mindful when assigning work outside of regular work hours; to foster a safe work environment; and not to retaliate or appear to retaliate when workers do exercise their rights.