The New Office: Personnel Laws in the 1990s

Article excerpt

Not long ago, futurists predicted that demographic changes would completely alter the American work force by the year 2000. The prediction has already come true: America's work environment is changing. By the turn of the century, much of the work force will be older, with women comprising a sizable component. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Labor, only a handful of employers are currently initiating programs to deal with the significant changes in the look and shape of employee populations. What that means for employers is that many organizations will get caught short by increasing government regulation and employment-related litigation during the next decade. At the very least, risk managers should be prepared for the growing liabilities associated with the work force of the future.

More proactive employers are putting stock in programs aimed at managing increasingly diverse groups of employees: Fifty-five percent of the 227 senior personnel executives surveyed by Towers Perrin have a Work Force 2000 program in place. However, there are still company executives that think they can put all their effort in the venerable employment-at-will doctrine, which allows them to dismiss employees without cause. Increasingly, at-will employment is becoming a concept of the past. An avalanche of federal and state laws and regulations, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1991, now govern the hiring, firing and disciplining of workers. The following are work force trends expected in the years ahead.

Discrimination laws. Real or otherwise, discrimination lies at the core of many termination suits. Employees who wish to charge their former employers with discriminatory firings or layoffs already have an unprecedented amount of legal ammunition at their disposal, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Many workers and their elected representatives believe that the current legal arsenal needs even more firepower. They are pushing for congressional legislation that would produce fundamental changes in the nation's civil rights law. Similar efforts in the state legislatures are taking place across the country.

If congressional and state lawmakers were to pass the legislation that these groups want, employees would be able to take their employment discrimination cases directly to court instead of having to first file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a local human rights commission. The settlements and damages paid to ex-employees are incredibly high now, and they could go higher, especially if Congress expands Title VII to give winning employees the right to ask for compensatory and punitive damages. Million-dollar awards in employment discrimination cases may become the norm in the decade ahead..

Minorities and women. Much more will be heard from women in the workplace. According to the EEOC, African-american women represent 2 percent of the managers in companies with 100 or more employees; 23 percent of the managers are white women. Three percent are African-american men. This situation is bound to change, especially as more black women enter the job market. By the late 90s, there may be more than 8 million African-american women in the U.S. work force. It is a good bet that these women will do whatever is necessary to get the courts and legislatures to guarantee them equal access to the corporate ladder.

Overweight work force. Several U.S. airlines have fairly strict weight requirements for their flight attendants. Until recently, such standards applied only to female attendants. The EEOC has filed a class-action lawsuit against a major airline for firing female flight attendants who did not meet its weight standards. The suit contends that the airline's policy, which states that a 5-foot-5-inch female attendant cannot weigh more than 120 pounds, discriminates against attendants over age 40. …