Today, January 21, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that he would have only turned 90 years old this past week. He would still be younger than Betty White, Queen Elizabeth II, and Tony Bennett, to name but a few. 

Since his assassination was more than 50 years ago, it’s easy to make him merely a historical figure. The problem with that is we tend to think of those as not quite as relevant to our current situation. Dr. King’s legacy of fighting for racial justice is anything but irrelevant today, as we unfortunately see from the headlines all too frequently.

In his lifetime, Dr. King traveled more than six million miles, spoke over 2,500 times to different audiences – including the 250,000 who heard him give his “I Have A Dream” speech, wrote five books and numerous articles, and received five honorary degrees. He was arrested more than 20 times, assaulted at least 4, had his home bombed once, and ultimately gave his life for the cause. 

There is much to learn from Dr. King and his commitment to seeing all people free. 

In my practice advising businesses, I see his legacy prevalent in laws surrounding the hiring, treatment and discharge of employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. New York State’s Human Rights law protects employees and job seekers from discrimination based on age, creed, race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, disability, military status, domestic violence victim status, criminal or arrest record, or predisposing genetic characteristics. 

And on January 15, 2019 – what would have been Dr. King’s 90thbirthday – the legislature passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA). GENDA codified into law that which has been protected by executive order from the governor since 2015, an explicit protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.

While this doesn’t change anything from an employer’s perspective, it does make these protections permanent and not subject to a potential change by a new administration. 

Employers need to be sure to avoid potential issues in the workplace, including, but not limited to:

  • Verification of gender– Employers should not require disclosure of gender on applications or any other employment form unless absolutely necessary for the provision of services. 
  • Use preferred name– Employers should use an employee’s preferred name in all interactions. The only exception should be when an employee’s legal name is required to interact with a governmental agency or on a report (i.e., IRS, Department of Labor reporting, etc.).
  • Use of preferred gender pronoun – Employers should use an employee’s preferred gender pronoun (e.g., “he” or “she”, “him” or “her”, “his” or “hers”) when addressing or referring to the employee. The only exception should be when an employee’s gender pronoun is required to interact with a governmental agency or on a report (i.e., IRS, Department of Labor reporting, etc.).
  • Bathrooms– an employee must be allowed to use the bathroom that conforms with his or her gender identity. Signage should be reviewed on single-user restrooms to ensure it is gender neutral (i.e., “Restroom” as opposed to “Men”).
  • Uniforms/Appearance– an employee must be allowed to conform to uniform and appearance standards for his or her gender identity. 
  • Transitioning Employees– An employer should be careful when presented with an employee who has initiated a transition. Working with the employee, the employer may address timing of disclosure, how disclosure will take place (if at all), name/pronoun changes, updating of records, and the like. 

In addition, an employer’s handbook, policies and procedures should be reviewed to ensure that no inadvertent non-compliance exists. 

Overall, GENDA memorializes that which NYS has already proscribed: our businesses should be free from discrimination. As Dr. King stated, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If you need assistance determining if your business is compliance with GENDA, NYS’s Human Rights Act, or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we welcome your call. LOVE LAW FIRM is here to help you build your business.

Francine E. Love is the Founder and Managing Attorney at LOVE LAW FIRM, PLLC which dedicates its practice to serving business owners and entrepreneurs. The opinions expressed are those of the author. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.