In a diverse workplace, management seeks to hire employees representing a cross section of demographics. Diversity encourages strengths, talents and new ideas, treats all employees as equals, respects differences and fosters an inclusive environment. Discrimination against any minority group, by hiring practices or by treating employed members of that group differently from other employees, could violate federal or state laws and expose the employer to litigation.
Not only is workplace diversity a desirable goal, it is supported by federal and state laws that forbid discrimination in all areas of employment, including hiring and firing, pay practices, promotions, training and job assignments. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of race, color, religion, national origin or gender. People who are 40 or older are protected from bias by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protects a qualified person from job discrimination because of a disability. Laws also protect against discrimination because of genetic information or because of pregnancy. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the federal laws, and individual states have their own anti-discrimination laws.
In addition to the categories protected by law, people in the workplace often differ in their marital status, generation, level of education, political affiliation, sexual orientation, social and economic status, work experience and work style. All of these differences contribute to a diverse workforce.
Employees and job-seekers alike are protected by anti-discrimination laws. Employers are forbidden from running help-wanted ads that show a preference for or discouragement of specific types of workers -- for example, using descriptions such as “young man” or requesting “men only.” Other means of recruiting, such as word-of-mouth or job boards, that apply to specific groups and exclude others are also illegal. An employer is not allowed to require certain groups of job applicants to take tests unless the tests specifically relate to the job and unless all applicants are required to take the same tests.
On the Job
The EEOC's Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices stipulates that it is against the law for an employer to make decisions about assignments and promotions based solely on the employee’s “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information” or based on stereotypes about those circumstances. The boss can't segregate employees of a certain group. Pay and benefits shouldn't be related to employees’ status in a protected minority group. Men and women, for example, must be paid equally for equal work. In the event of a layoff, older workers must not be singled out to be let go because of their age. It is illegal for an employer to provide a bad reference, or refuse to provide a reference, based on the employee’s status in a protected category.
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for a worker or job applicant with a disability -- such as a wheelchair ramp or an interpreter for a blind or deaf employee -- as long as it doesn't involve significant expense or hardship. A company also must provide reasonable accommodations for workers’ religious practices. Management can adopt a dress code that applies to all employees and does not prohibit ethnic or national origin attire. The boss must grant a dress code exception if an employee requests one because of disability or religious practices.
Employees should be encouraged to help support diverse workplaces by becoming aware of their own personal biases and how they may be expressing them. They can take a stand against jokes and other put-downs against any group, make an effort to get to know more about the cultures of other workers, become more flexible about different approaches and recognize the value of diversity.