Unequal treatment based on race has long existed in the United States. Today, federal, state and local laws attempt to eliminate discrimination and provide a cause of action for victims to sue when it does occur. While blatant cases may be easier to prevent or prove in court, many situations are more complex. In workplaces, employers must be diligent and address all forms of race discrimination or risk significant liability. Employees must understand their rights, so they can enforce them effectively. In both cases, experienced legal advice can help ensure that workplaces comply with discrimination laws and are fair to all employees.
What Is Race Discrimination?
Race discrimination laws prohibit adverse or inferior treatment of an employee or applicant based on race or skin color. Unlawful discrimination can occur in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, salary, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment.
Typically, discrimination based on race also encompasses differential treatment based on skin color or complexion and personal characteristics associated with race, such as hair texture or certain facial features. The latter category includes when employers have grooming policies which prohibit certain hairstyles in the workplace.
It is also illegal to discriminate because of the worker’s association with a person of a particular race.
Harassment based on the employee’s race or skin color is also unlawful. This can include ethnic slurs; racial “jokes”; offensive, abusive, or threatening comments; display of racially offensive symbols; and inappropriate physical contact.
Employers must protect employees from discrimination or harassment by supervisors, employees and some third parties—such as customers and vendors.
Disparate Treatment vs. Disparate Impact
Generally, people think of discrimination as intentional unfavorable conduct against an individual. This is known as disparate treatment—a person is treated differently than other employees in similar situations because of the employee’s race. However, discrimination may also occur when a seemingly neutral policy, rule or practice has a disproportionately negative impact on members of a particular race. This is known as disparate impact, which can be a result of systematic discrimination. For example, disparate impact may occur during the hiring process while using basic screening methods such as background and credit checks, past work experience, testing and education requirements.
However, employers have a defense in disparate impact claims if they can show the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The employer must show that the policy is “reasonably designed and administered to achieve a legitimate business purpose in light of the circumstances,” including its potential harm to the protected group.
What Laws Prohibit Race Discrimination?
Employees are protected from discrimination under various federal, state and/or local laws. However, the requirements and procedures vary so it is important to consult an attorney regarding what actions must be taken to prevent or redress illegal conduct.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in all aspects of employment. Generally, it only applies to employers with at least 15 employees, labor unions and employment agencies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII.
New York Law
The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) protects employees from race discrimination. The law applies to all employers regardless of the size of the business. The New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) handles enforcement.
The New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) is virtually identical to the state law. It also applies to all employers, but it is enforced by the New York City Human Rights Commission’s (NYCHRC) Law Enforcement Bureau (LEB).
How Should Employees and Employers Handle Race Discrimination?
Best practice is to try to prevent discrimination and respond quickly if it occurs. However, where that fails, it is important to know which laws apply to the workplace and comply with the appropriate requirements and procedures.
When discrimination occurs, the first step for employees is to file a complaint with the employer in accordance with the employer’s reporting procedures. If that does not resolve the matter, the next step varies depending on the law that applies. Employees may be able to file a complaint with a federal, state, or local agency and/or sue in court.
Under federal laws, employees must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before going to court. This must be done within 300 days of the last act of discrimination. If the EEOC does not resolve the claim within 180 days, the employee can obtain a “Notice of Right to Sue” from the EEOC and then bring an action in federal or state court within 90 days of the date the notice was received.
In New York State, employees can file a complaint with the NYSDHR within one year of the last alleged act of discrimination. Alternatively, an employee can choose to go straight to court. However, the lawsuit must be brought within three years of the last act of discrimination.
New York City law is similar. Employees can file a complaint with the LEB or bring a lawsuit in the New York state courts. LEB complaints must be filed within one year of the last alleged act of discrimination. If victims choose to go to court, a lawsuit must be brought in the New York state courts within three years from the last act of discrimination.
Employers should take proactive steps to prevent or minimize discrimination in the workplace. The first step is to develop written policies and procedures which clearly prohibit discrimination and address how complaints will be handled. These should be part of a written employee handbook prepared with the guidance of an employment attorney who can include any specific requirements under federal, state and local law.
Employee training, particularly for supervisors and hiring managers, is also a necessity to minimize potential discriminatory conduct and ensure that managers take appropriate measures if complaints are made.
When complaints are made, employers must investigate them in accordance with their written policies and document any evidence found and actions taken by any of the parties. These steps can help mitigate the employer’s liability in the event the matter goes to court.
Unfortunately, race discrimination continues to be a problem in some workplaces. An experienced attorney can help minimize illegal conduct as well as ensure that victims obtain redress when they have legitimate claims.
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