A Physician's Guide to antidiscrimination law

Federal EEOC requirements—and their local equivalents—govern hiring, firing, and everything in between.

Your degree says MD or DO, not JD, but if you run your own practice, you need a basic understanding of labor and employment law. Without such knowledge, you risk running afoul of federal, state, and local rules that govern the workplace.

In this first of several articles on your rights and responsibilities as an employer, we'll talk about the fundamentals of antidiscrimination statutes and the agencies that enforce them, headed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Follow-up articles will focus on employee classifications, employee injuries, and how to develop a policy and procedure manual.

For starters, a little background: The best-known federal employment antidiscrimination statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits you from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion and applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. That's the same number of employees you need to be subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, which forbids discrimination against people who are 40 or older, applies to employers with 20 or more workers.

"Generally speaking, you can't discriminate when you make any decision about who to hire, fire, discipline, promote, offer training to, or give a raise to," says Barbara J. Fick, a professor at Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, IN, and author of The American Bar Association Guide to Workplace Law (Random House Reference, 1997). If you fail to follow these guidelines, don't be surprised if an employee files a complaint with the EEOC or a local enforcement agency.

Some caveats: