Preventing Racial & Ethnic Discrimination

           With the debate over illegal immigration raging in this country, it seems like a good time to remind employers about the present laws concerning racial and national origin discrimination.

            No matter what your beliefs are about illegal immigration and those who protest in support of or against it, as an employer you must be careful to make employment decisions based only on job qualifications, not on your perception of or the actuality of an employee’s race or place of birth.

            Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate in the terms and conditions of employment based on where an applicant or an employee, or his ancestors, originated. You also cannot discriminate because someone’s race is Hispanic, Arab or otherwise.

            Discrimination takes many forms in the workplace and you as the employer have to be vigilant to all of these ways that the company could face a discrimination charge.

            For example, how do you refer to someone who was born in this country but whose ancestors came from Mexico? I’ve heard more than one supervisor in the Panhandle refer to an employee like this as a “beaner”, a  “dirty Mexican” or a “wetback”. Use of this kind of slur in the workplace is an employment lawsuit waiting to happen.

Making fun of a person’s accent or speech patterns and pretending not to understand what a foreign-born employee is saying is another legal landmine.

            Requiring employees to only speak English at work raises all kinds of discrimination issues because, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out in its guidelines, the “primary language of an individual is often an essential nation origin characteristic.”

There are very few safety-related reasons that you would want to require that employees speak English. Don’t even consider instituting an English-only rule without consulting an employment attorney. Otherwise, it is better to hire bilingual first-line supervisors that can communicate in the language of your employees.

            The most dangerous person in the company in terms of exposure to a discrimination suit is the first-line manager. While the CEO of the company may be too sophisticated or politically correct to make a racial slur, the newly promoted blue-collar worker making his debut as a supervisor may not understand the trouble he can cause the company by a stray racial remark or poorly-timed ethnic joke.

            Since the quality of the immigration debate in the media and locally often seems to disintegrate into bigotry lately, you would be wise to address this issue company-wide right now and let your employees know that racial and ethnic epitaphs are still unwelcome in your company.

            Training all of your employees to be sensitive to racial and national origin diversity in your workplace is essential. Even if you can’t change a bigot’s heart and mind with workplace training, you can make darn sure that he knows that his job security depends on him keeping his racist opinions to himself at work.

            However, it is not discriminatory to require all employees to follow the written company policies and work rules. If an employee is scheduled to work and leaves without notice to attend an immigration rally or protest, you can discipline the employee for the violation of the work rule. Just be careful in addressing the violation to focus on the employee’s absence, not the employee’s beliefs that led to the absence.

            Finally, remember that it is still illegal for companies in the U.S. to hire illegal immigrants. Carefully fill out an I-9 form on each and every new employee, verifying that her documents show she is legal to work here, either by citizenship or by legal immigration.

Right now, employers don’t have to independently verify that the documents an employee presents are valid unless the documents themselves look suspicious. That rule could change under whatever new legislative burden Congress decides to place on you as an employer to prevent illegal immigrants from working here.

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