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Importance of Employment Law for HR Professionals

Recent events have put a spotlight on the workplace and employment law. Specifically, high-profile cases of sexual harassment have resulted in an outpouring of women speaking up about sexual harassment in the workplace. This points to the important role of HR managers in protecting workers’ rights.

There are laws at both the federal and state level that protect employees. In addition to protecting employees from discriminatory practices and harassment, these laws cover hiring and firing, workplace safety, fair pay, family and medical leave, and much more. These laws even cover candidates during the hiring process.

Given the complexities of employment law, it is not surprising that HR management positions often require an advanced degree. A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one example. At Northwest Missouri State University, the online MBA program in Human Resource Management includes a course in Advanced Human Resource Management that places special emphasis on legal and ethical concerns.

What Is Employment Law?

What is workplace discrimination? Are hourly workers entitled to overtime pay? Can employers run background checks on job candidates?

All of these questions can be answered by employment law, which covers the rights and responsibilities of employers and workers. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) oversees more than 180 federal laws for well over a million workers. A few of the more common areas include:

Discrimination and Harassment: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces laws related to discrimination. Sexual harassment is one example. Other forms of harassment relate to race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability and genetic information.

Worker Health and Safety: Workplace safety is protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). For example, OSHA mandates that required training is provided for all workers in “a language and vocabulary they can understand.”

Payment, Including Wages: The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulates hourly wages, overtime pay, unpaid wages and other issues related to payments. It also governs child labor, with stipulations in place to protect children from working in jobs considered unsafe.

Health and Retirement: The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) covers compensation and benefits, including non-wage compensation such as health insurance and retirement (or pension) plans.

Unpaid Leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job protection under certain circumstances for employees who take unpaid leave, such as for the birth or adoption of a child or a serious family illness.

What Do HR Managers Need to Know About Employment Law?

The first thing to know about employment law is which laws apply to a particular business. Not all laws apply to all employers. Therefore, HR managers need to understand applicable employment law to protect the rights of their employees. In the process, HR managers can help their companies avoid lawsuits, fines and legal expenses.

For example, when it comes to family and medical leave, small business owners may not have the same obligations as larger corporations. Similarly, the minimum wage in many states and some cities is higher than the federal standard of $7.25 per hour. As of January 2018, the DOL reports that 29 states and the District of Columbia have a higher minimum wage. In this case, employers are required to pay the higher rate.

Sexual harassment headlines continue, including the role of HR in handling reported cases. In “When You Experience Sexual Harassment at Work,” New York Times reporter Valeriya Safronova cites the thousands of people who have come forward, including some who have initiated investigations. Still, the National Women’s Law Center notes that few victims of sexual harassment make formal complaints. Fear of losing their jobs is cited as one reason. HR managers need to understand how to respond in accordance with the law.

It is easy to think of HR as the department that deals with hiring and firing. But one look at an MBA program in HR management makes it clear that there is much more to this career. HR managers must be well-versed in topics related to corporate recruitment, compensation and benefits, and organizational training and development.

With the recent surge of sexual harassment claims, they also need to be up to date on employment laws and changing environments. HR managers who fully understand compliance can create policies and procedures to maintain a safe, healthy workplace where employees are protected by the full scope of employment law.

Learn more about Northwest’s online MBA in HR Management program.


U.S. Department of Labor: Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Harassment

EPA: Summary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

U.S. Department of Labor: Wage and Hour Division – Compliance Assistance – Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

U.S. Department of Labor: Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)

U.S. Department of Labor: FMLA (Family & Medical Leave Act)

U.S. Department of Labor: Minimum Wage Laws in the States

The New York Times: When You Experience Sexual Harassment at Work

National Women’s Law Center: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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