Ten Employment Laws Every Supervisor Should Know

These federal laws are ones that govern every business.

By Alexandra Walsh

Overtime pay. Discrimination. Family leave. Harassment . . .

Federal employment laws govern all of these issues—and many more—you deal with at some point in
your professional life. Supervisors and managers have a shared responsibility with a human resource manager in making sure their interactions and relations with employees are compliant with federal and state employment laws.

Here are the 10 most important employment laws supervisors need to be aware of and the major responsibilities supervisors typically are responsible for in ensuring compliance.

1. Job discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits you from discriminating in hiring, firing, or basing pay on a person’s race, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibits sexual harassment. (www.eeoc.gov)

Supervisors must treat all employees and all applicants consistently and equally without regard to their race, color, religion, gender, national origin, or any other characteristics protected under law. They are not to base any employment decisions on these protected characteristics, cannot deny opportunities
to an individual because of their characteristics, and cannot retaliate against an employee.

All employees are to be treated respectfully and unwanted or unwelcomed behavior that constitutes harassment must be avoided.

2. Minimum wage and overtime pay

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the nation’s main wage law. It sets the federal minimum wage (many states have higher minimums) and requires time-and-a-half overtime pay for hourly employees
who work more than 40 hours in a workweek. The FLSA also limits the hours and type of duties teens can work. (www.dol.gov/dol/topic/wages)

Supervisors must ensure employees are paid properly in accordance with the law’s provisions and for all hours they work (particularly overtime) and are often responsible for managing and making sure all work hours of non-exempt employees are recorded and verified.

In addition, supervisors must understand which employees are exempt and non-exempt and should work with the human resource department before making changes to their employees’ essential
duties, which could affect their exemption status.

3. Family leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act says eligible employees—those with at least a year of service—can take up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid, job-protected time off for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for themselves or a sick child, spouse, or parent who has a “serious” health condition. The FMLA
applies to organizations with 50 or more employees. (www.dol.gov/whd/fmla)

When employees request medical leave or time off to address medical issues, supervisors must refer them to the HR department. Supervisors also must listen for requests meeting the FMLA criteria (such as references to a health condition or family member’s health condition) since employees don’t need
to use the words “FMLA leave” to gain protection under the law.

Supervisors are to maintain contact with employees on leave and remain informed of changes to their condition or leave, and communicate those changes to their HR department. While employees
are on leave, supervisors must be cognizant of employment actions (termination, discipline, etc.).
Finally, supervisors also need to follow privacy, confidentiality, recordkeeping, and other FMLA-related
responsibilities their organization has in place

4. Age discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act says you can’t discriminate in any way against applicants or employees older than 40 because of their age. (www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/age.cfm)

Supervisors must never take a person’s age or proximity to retirement into account when making employment decisions such as assignments, hiring, firing, pay, benefits—or promotions, training
programs, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Never assume older workers can no longer do a particular task or job, communicate in a way that implies bias, replace older workers with younger ones for illegitimate reasons, or discipline older workers more harshly.

5. Disability discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits job discrimination against qualified people with disabilities (those who can perform the job’s essential functions with or without a reasonable
accommodation). (www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/disability.cfm)

Never immediately reject applicants because you think their disability would prevent them from doing the job. When hiring, stick to questions about the applicant’s ability to perform the job’s essential functions; don’t ask questions revealing an applicant’s disability.

Work with your HR manager to help create reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

6. Military leave

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against employees who volunteer or are called to military duty. When reservists return from active duty tours of less than five years, you must reemploy them to their old jobs or to equal jobs. (www.esgr.org/site/USERRA/FAQ.aspx)

Don’t challenge a returning reservist’s bid to get their old job back; courts typically side with employees in USERRA disputes.

7. Gender-pay differences

The Equal Pay Act says employers can’t pay female employees less than male employees for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility. (www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sex.cfm)

Although supervisors are often not responsible for deciding compensation, they should collaborate with their HR department to assure employees of both genders are paid equally if they are in the same job, and should take any complaints of pay discrimination to HR.

Whenever faced with an employee inquiry regarding different pay for the same job title or role, supervisors should be prepared to point to varying levels of responsibility, duties, skill requirements,
or education requirements.

8. Workplace safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to run a business free from recognized hazards. (www.osha.gov)

Supervisors must provide employees with a work environment that is free of recognized hazards that could cause serious physical harm, and also need to comply with occupational safety and health standards.

Supervisors may also be responsible for making sure employees receive safety training, assessing hazards in the work area, determining the type of protective equipment needed, investigating
incidents and inspecting equipment, and reporting all accidents and injuries that employees have at work.

9. Pregnancy discrimination

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits job discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions.” You cannot deny a job or promotion merely because an employee
is pregnant or had an abortion. She cannot be fired for her condition or forced to go on leave. (www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/pregnancy.cfm)

Supervisors should treat pregnant employees the same as other employees with temporary disabilities on the basis of their ability or inability to work. This includes requests for accommodations
in order to perform the essential duties of the job. For example, if you provide light duty for an employee who can’t lift boxes because of a bad back, you must make similar arrangements for a pregnant
employee.

Similar to other laws, supervisors should not discriminate against pregnant employees in terms of hiring, firing, compensation, training, benefits, and other relevant terms and conditions of employment.

10. Immigration

The Immigration Reform and Control Act makes it illegal to hire and employ illegal aliens. Employers must verify identification and workplace eligibility for all hires by completing I-9 Forms. (www.uscis.gov)

Managers should note it’s still illegal to discriminate against illegal aliens—by means of harassment or lower than minimum pay—even if the illegal immigrant is hired inadvertently.

Every employer should understand the basics of these employment laws—although be aware there are other federal and state employment laws that may also impact you and your business. For this reason, it’s critically important to train your supervisors and managers on employment law, and provide
continual coaching and development to maintain compliance.


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.