Equal-opportunity agency plans seminars to explain labor laws to small firms

Employment-discrimination lawsuits against major corporations have been widely publicized in recent years. Like Hollywood epics, they tend to have casts of thousands, and their settlements run into tens of millions. But small and midsized firms fall under the law, too.

''For these companies, the discrimination laws are a ticking time bomb,'' says Alan Weitz, a Washington attorney.

Small businesses practicing illegal employment discrimination may be less visible than major firms - and hence less vulnerable to lawsuits. But smaller firms, with their general lack of formal policies on hiring, firing, promoting, and paying their workers, may also be more likely to break the law, unintentionally, in some cases.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is launching an initiative to acquaint small businesses with the law through a series of daylong symposiums across the country starting next month.

Any company with 15 employees for at least 20 weeks a year is forbidden by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to discriminate in employment on grounds of sex, race, religion, or national origin. Federal statute also prohibits age discrimination by companies with at least 20 employees. And in many cases even smaller companies may be covered by state laws.

The EEOC seminars will be for groups of 30 or less and held on ''neutral ground,'' away from EEOC district offices. ''The idea is to get the equal-employment opportunity law out of the lawyers' realm and into mainstream business management,'' says Leonora Guarraia, director of the EEOC office of special projects.

The EEOC is putting out the word that ''company specific'' information will not be sought during the symposiums, and companies are being asked not to volunteer any. In short, ''Please refrain from incriminating yourselves'' is the message.

''Public interest groups see this (program) as turning our back on our enforcement responsibilities,'' says Ms. Guarraia. ''But we're not diminishing our enforcement role.''

In any case, not all small businesses are in the dark as to what the law requires. Says Loretta Harrigan, employer-services manager for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a manufacturers' association, ''I get an awful lot of calls from the smaller folks. They bend over backwards to be fair. Their caution is incredible.''

What she does see as a problem for employers is the growing notion of ''employment at will,'' the idea that giving someone a job is an implied contract, and that if the contract is broken - that is, the employee is fired - there should be good reason. Small employers are finding themselves slapped with wrongful dismissal suits, she says.

The solution, she suggests, is clear, consistent, and explicit policies. ''If someone punches out their supervisor, that's pretty bad, and that person probably should be fired. But if it turns out that someone did the same thing two weeks ago and they didn't get fired, then there's a problem.''

Mr. Weitz, a partner in the Washington firm of Ginsburg, Feldman & Bress, says there's really no such thing as winning a lawsuit. He urges a few preventive measures to forestall thousands - or millions - of dollars worth of litigious cure.

EEOC spokesman Reginald Welch cites two basic hiring guidelines:

* Interviews, application forms, advertisements, and so on must be clearly job-related.

* Pre-employment tests and job requirements must be reliable predictors of job performance. An employer is not restricted in developing standards to get the most qualified people for the job, as long as protected groups are not discriminated against.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires neither hiring ''quotas'' nor affirmative action plans - although employers found to be discriminating illegally have been ordered to establish these.

What about discrimination based on expressed preferences of customers or other employees? For example: Suppose Charlie's Heating & Plumbing Company advertises in the Centerville Gazette for a new technician. All but one of those responding to the ad are women. Charlie consults with his crewmen. They say, ''Heck, no, we don't want to work with a woman.'' And so Charlie says, ''Sorry, ladies, we're taking the man.'' What then?

''It looks as though those companies are going to have to bite the bullet,'' Mr. Weitz says: The law forbids such discrimination, and if the crewmen don't want to work with a woman, that's too bad. The same principle applies to companies that say their customers won't accept members of certain ethnic groups , for example. The hypothetical women plumbers could take Charlie to court if his firm is big enough.

Isabelle Pinzler, director of the women's rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, identifies violations of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as a particular problem in small business. Under this law, if employers grant short-term disability leave at all, they must grant it for pregnancy and childbirth as well.

Mr. Weitz has these tips for employers:

* Each employee should get a written performance evaluation at least once a year, with as many objective criteria used as possible.

* Businesses advertising jobs solely by word of mouth would do well to take out the occasional newspaper ad, too.

* Watch out for subtleties. ''A department store, for example, obviously isn't going to put a man in the lingerie department. But what if all the salespeople in the men's suits department are male, and the women are off selling blouses somewhere - where commissions are lower because the prices are lower?''

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