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Basics of employment discrimination for small businesses

Employees play a big role in the success of many small businesses. Along with employees, however, come important - and often confusing - legal responsibilities.

Nondiscrimination is a major aspect of employment law. For a small business, a discrimination claim can not only deflate the morale of your employees and irreversibly damage your reputation, but it can also lead to lengthy and expensive legal proceedings.

What the law covers

Employment law is a complex web that involves federal, state and local regulations.So how do you know which laws apply? Generally speaking, it depends on where you're located and how many employees you have.

Employment discrimination laws cover the following categories:

  • Age: The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Georgia's Age Discrimination Act provide protections for those ages 40 and over.
  • Disability: The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Georgia's Equal Employment for Persons with Disabilities Code prohibit discrimination and require employers to make certain accommodations.
  • Race, color and national origin: Title VII, the hallmark federal law on fair treatment, prohibits discrimination on these grounds.
  • Religion: Title VII also prohibits religious discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations in certain circumstances.
  • Sex: Both state and federal laws require equal pay for equal work. Federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment.
  • Pregnancy: The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act covers pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions.
  • Sexual orientation, gender identity and domestic relationship status: A local Atlanta ordinance prohibits employment discrimination on these grounds.

Some of these laws apply to all employers, regardless of size. Others govern only those with 10 or 15 (or more) employees. And some - such as the Atlanta fair employment ordinance - apply only to Atlanta businesses with a certain number of employees.

As you can see, given the breadth and complexity of employment discrimination laws, it's best to play it safe. When questions arise, consult with a lawyer who understands both business and employment law.

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