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Navigating the HR Minefield

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For those of us who have been around long enough, we can remember when sexual harassment became a source of concern for business operators. It included all sorts of issues that could include almost anything that would be in violation of an employee’s personal values, especially those involving sexual advances and implications. It became somewhat popular as cases became relatively easy for possible victims to win, and potential penalties were high. It was kind of the “new thing” that businesses had to be aware of and to take appropriate precautions to prevent as well as address promptly when issues arose.

Such is the nature of human resources (HR) regulation and policies. I include the term “policies” because it’s not just about the regulation, but also about how they are interpreted by courts and other government enforcement agencies, complicating the matter further. For a business operator, it can feel like a minefield that we have to walk through, careful not to misstep and set off an explosion of unpleasant and potentially catastrophic consequences. Over time, there are increasingly more regulations as well as changing emphasis on and interpretation of HR issues.

Ironically, those of us old enough to remember some of what I describe above have our own personal HR issue that has become a “thing” of increased prominence and concern: age discrimination. People age 40 and older are protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. Its protections apply to both employees and those applying for a job. Perhaps it’s the aging baby boomers or perhaps the evolving culture, but for whatever reason this HR issue has become more popular, with more successful suits, thus adding to its prevalence.

Age discrimination most commonly comes in four different forms:

Search discrimination. This is when businesses in some way limit the age range of candidates considered.

Position discrimination. Older employees are treated differently through such actions as passing them over for promotion or advancement or by giving more favorable job assignments to younger employees.

Age harassment. An unpleasant or hostile work environment is created for older employees with the intent of causing them to leave, thus accommodating younger and often less expensive staff to take over.

Discrimination layoffs. Employers try to get rid of older employees through prejudicial layoffs, often targeting employees who presumably only have a few remaining years before retirement.

A brief online search revealed a number of cases in the automotive industry. In one example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit against a car dealership. The suit claimed that car runners were dismissed before they reached the age of 75. As part of the settlement reached, the dealership agreed to a $70,000 payout as well as offering training for supervisors and managers regarding employee rights and employer obligations under the ADEA.

Another reported case, also involving a dealership, included 10 employees. Five were females who reported a sexually hostile work environment, including offensive comments, physical touching, failure to promote women, and salary cuts. The other five were older males who were reportedly fired because of their ages and replaced with younger, less experienced workers. They also reported that age-related comments were made by a young supervisor and that younger, less productive employees were retained. Though the business stated that the claims lacked merit and basis, they agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the suit.

The obvious lesson to us as business operators is to understand not only HR regulation, but current trends as well. It’s admittedly hard to keep up with all of the changes. In most cases, it makes sense to have expert advice. It can be in the form of an attorney with specific expertise who offers consultation or an insurance provider or HR resource provider who offers such services. The size of your business and amount of company resources may dictate the best solution for you. Make sure they are keeping you up to date on changes, such as the recent Department of Labor regulation changes on minimum salaries for non-exempt staff people.

Another key factor is to pay attention to any concerns brought to your attention by staff. Any allegations should be promptly investigated and even subtle issues addressed promptly. If a case can be made that your business accommodates age discrimination, or other prominent HR issues, you have just become exposed to significant consequences. Pay attention and do the right thing.

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