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Employment Laws Every Human Resources Professional Should Know

Updated: Jun 24

Employers must conduct staffing in accordance with laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels to avoid discriminatory hiring practices. Employment laws regulate hiring and firing, wage and hour administration, and employment practices such as giving employees breaks, minimum employment age, and safe work environment.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discriminatory hiring practices in the areas of equal opportunity, affirmative action, and sexual harassment. These three important areas impact almost all human resource practices and everyone working in human resources should know about laws regulating them. The Recruiting Division discusses recruiter training in “Best Resources for Recruiter Training in 2014” such as Society for Human Resource Management Conference (SHRM) and AIRS Training where recruiters can learn about employment laws among other important HR issues.

Equal Employment Opportunity

Applicants and employees are protected under Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws from illegal discrimination based on their race, age, or gender. EEO laws ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to get a job or be promoted at work.

EEO laws protect broad classes of people from discrimination for the following characteristics:

  1. Race, ethnic origin, color (for example African American or Hispanic)

  2. Gender (women, including those who are pregnant)

  3. Age (people older than 40)

  4. Individuals with physical and mental disabilities

  5. Military experience (veterans)

  6. Religion

Equal Employment Opportunity laws are designed to ensure equal treatment at work, and employers are required to take affirmative action, or extra effort, to hire and promote people who belong to a protected class. Affirmative action means taking specific actions to eliminate or prevent the current effects of past discriminations.


Employees are also protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII. The EEOC enforces the following laws:

  1. Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.

  2. Civil Rights Act of 1991. This law, signed by President George H.W. Bush, strengthens the prohibitions of discrimination of the original act and permits individuals to sue in cases of intentional discrimination and puts the burden of proof on the employer.

  3. Equal Pay Act of 1963. This law equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.

  4. Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. This law prohibits discrimination or firing of women because of pregnancy alone, and protects women’s job security during maternity leaves.

  5. American with Disabilities Act. This law prohibits discrimination against individuals with physical or mental disabilities or the chronically ill, and requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” so the disabled can work.

Compliance with Title VII is required from all private employers of 15 or more persons, all educational institutions, all state and local governments, all public and private employment agencies, and all labor unions with 15 or more members, as well as joint labor‐management committees for apprenticeship and training.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can be a tricky concept to understand but compliance is important to avoid costly litigation. Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as “unwelcome sexual advances for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” and may include sexually suggestive remarks, sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, unwanted touching, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature. It may also include seeing and hearing these things happen to others.

In 1993, the Supreme Court widened the test for sexual harassment under the civil rights law to include a hostile or abusive environment. Sexual harassment includes same‐sex harassment and harassment of males by female coworkers.

Human resources staff must pay attention to instances of sexual harassment because of its affect on performance and because it exposes the business to liability. The company must respond to complaints of sexual harassment with prompt investigation and clear policies to avoid the appearance of being indifferent and contributing to a hostile work environment.

Other Employment Laws

Other employment laws impact human resources and workforce management, including the Fair Labor Standards Act that regulates minimum wage, overtime pay rules, and child labor law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act which prohibits age discrimination against those 40 and older, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act to regulate workplace safety. While legal counsel can help companies with employment law issues, human resources staff need to know and understand employment laws for compliance and to be able to help management understand them.

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