Human resources (HR) professionals are responsible for strategically managing employees within an organization while remaining compliant with laws that govern employee rights and employer obligations. If an organization violates these complex and ever-changing regulations, it exposes itself to risk, including lawsuits, financial losses, and reputation damage.
Since non-compliance can result in such serious consequences, there is a strong demand for industry workers who possess knowledge of HR laws and common legal issues in the workplace.
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Below, Briana Hyde—a lecturer in Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies who teaches non-profit management, legal governance, and human resource management—outlines the top HR laws industry professionals should know to most effectively serve their organization and advance their careers.
Why Do HR professionals Need Legal Knowledge?
HR roles are not one size fits all. Depending on the title, an HR worker’s responsibilities can vary significantly. Some HR managers are solely responsible for staffing, others concentrate on employee development, some deal strictly with compensation and benefits, and others—the generalists—do it all.
“But regardless of individual job function,” Hyde says, “compliance is a key responsibility of every HR role. The law touches every profession that falls under the HR umbrella in some way.”
These professionals are tasked with frequent on-the-spot decisions that can have severe legal consequences, so knowledge of common HR-related laws gives these industry workers the confidence to make these decisions or know when to contact outside counsel.
HR professionals with legal expertise also have a competitive advantage in the workplace, as they are able to proactively minimize a company’s exposure to legal risk. With working knowledge of current laws and their real-world applications, they help companies remain compliant and avoid unnecessary claims while also protecting the rights of valued employees.
Legal Topics Every HR Professional Should Know
Hyde says there are several major legal areas that all HR professionals should be familiar with in order to most effectively serve their employees and employer. They are:
1. Workplace Discrimination Laws
Among the most important legislation for HR professionals to know, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws protect against the discrimination of any individual based on age, disability, genetic information, national origin, race/color, sex, pregnancy, or religion. HR professionals should be familiar with the individual laws that safeguard these protected classes of individuals such as:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
- Equal Pay Act (EPA)
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)
These laws are applicable in all stages of an employee’s lifecycle, from pre-hiring processes through rightful termination. Hyde says claims of discrimination can be brought even before a company brings someone in to interview, based on how job descriptions are crafted. It’s important for HR professionals to know not just the laws, but the many ways they can be applied to avoid practices that expose an organization to unnecessary liability.
Hyde says there is also immense pressure on organizations to provide improved harassment training. It’s critical for HR employees to know what is legally considered harassment to help eliminate it in the workplace. Informed HR professionals can better prevent harassment, protecting both the employees and company.
2. Wage and Hour Laws
These laws, protecting the wages and hours of employees, are regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor. The main statute—the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—has a number of important functions. For example, this statute:
- Dictates the national minimum wage
- Established the 40-hour work week
- Outlines requirements for overtime pay
- Directs child labor regulations
Another critical statute in this category is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, which entitles eligible employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons, with a continuance of healthcare coverage and job protection. In 2010, this act was amended to incorporate increased flexibility for veterans and active military in order to offer them additional protections under the law.
3. Employee Benefits Laws
This category of laws helps protect employees’ access to benefits. The most prominent laws include:
- The Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” which was enacted to increase access to affordable healthcare for those living below poverty levels.
- The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) stipulates that any organization offering pension plans must meet certain minimum standards.
- The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) mandates insurance programs must provide eligible employees access to continued health insurance coverage for a period of time after leaving employment.
- The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) affords employees and their dependents protection and privacy from the release of personal medical records. This law also protects employees from discrimination based on medical condition or history.
4. Immigration Laws
Immigration laws, including the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), serve to ensure that employers only hire candidates eligible to work in the U.S., including citizens, noncitizen nationals, lawful permanent residents, and aliens authorized to work. These regulations outline the use of I-9 forms to verify compliance. Hyde says it’s essential, however, that while organizations verify employment eligibility, they remain mindful of anti-discrimination laws in place.
5. Workplace Safety Laws
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was created in 1970 to ensure employees are afforded safe working conditions. Compliance of this regulation is overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Another area of legislation designed to protect the safety of employees is workers’ compensation laws. These regulations outline the administration of disability programs that serve federal employees who are injured on the job. Individuals who work for private companies or state governments, however, are protected under regulations dictated by the individual state’s worker compensation boards.
Applying The Law
Hyde says that while it’s helpful to know current and specific case law, what’s most crucial to success is the ability to think critically to solve business problems.
“In my legal studies courses, students don’t simply memorize laws, because [laws change, and] what they are learning today may not apply six months from now. Instead, we work on establishing critical thinking skills and working within a fact pattern to see how HR professionals might apply the law to facts in various real-world scenarios.”
Borrowing from the proverb about teaching a man to fish, Hyde arms her students with the knowledge and skills necessary to go forth and apply the law in their individual roles—even after current legislation has changed. It’s a combination of these analytical skills and current legal knowledge, she says, that can set an HR professional apart from his or her peers and advance their career.
How to Learn About Workplace Law
While it’s possible to learn workplace laws through on-the-job experience, most employers expect the HR professionals they hire will already have a firm understanding of the laws governing the profession. As such, if your goal is to work in human resources management, then it will pay to develop this understanding to prepare for the job.
If you are considering earning a graduate degree in human resources management—which is commonly sought by aspiring HR professionals—evaluate the curriculum of the programs on your shortlist. High-quality programs include courses on each of the areas outlined above, including specific legal aspects that HR professionals should understand.
Learn how a Master’s in Human Resources Management at Northeastern can prepare you to advance your career today.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2018 and has since been updated.