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Does the 1991 Civil Rights Act Apply to Expats

Never underestimate the long reach of the U.S. government when it comes to equal employment opportunity protections.

July 21, 1999
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Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance
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Editor's Note: On a whim, Workforce Department Editor Scott Hays signed up for a class titled "Human Resources Management," as part of the HR/Management Certificate Program at the University of California, Irvine. Each week, he'll visit one nugget of knowledge from the course, helping you move slowly in the direction of becoming a more strategic partner.

Never underestimate the long reach of the U.S. government when it comes to equal employment opportunity protections.

In theory, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars all public or private employers (of 15 or more people) from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The new and improved version of 1991 makes it even more important for human resources managers to adhere to both the spirit and letter of all equal employment opportunity laws.

But as a practical matter, does the 1991 Civil Rights Act apply to U.S. citizens employed in a foreign country by a U.S.-owned company? Or can you surreptitiously fire an employee because of her race, or demote an employee before of his sexual orientation?

In his book, Human Resource Management (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1997), Gary Dessler makes the point that, "at least theoretically, U.S. citizens now working overseas for U.S. companies enjoy the same equal employment opportunity protection as those working within U.S. borders."

Notice the emphasis on the word "theoretically." Most Congressional legislation only applies to people living within U.S. borders. A federal law prohibiting smoking in restaurants, for example, would be unenforceable in a Dublin pub. But recall, too, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created by Title VII to investigate job discrimination complaints and, if necessary, sue on behalf of the person or persons who filed the complaint. And yes, they can investigate complaints from U.S. citizens employed in a foreign country by a U.S.-owned company.

Dessler notes exceptions where civil rights protections may not be universal (for example, if Title VII guidelines violate the law of the host country).

That aside, it’s never smart to buck the U.S. government. Mike Loewe, managing director of Detroit, Michigan-based Lion Mobility Consulting Services, is a good source of info on issues related to equal employment opportunity protections and expats. Here are just a few of the highlights from our conversation:

  1. Educate and train employees to conduct themselves appropriately in accordance with local laws, as well as the policies and practices of your organization.
  2. Maintain a corporate policy in the host country that states clearly your company’s strict adherence to equal employment opportunity protections.
  3. Conduct site-specific cultural training and orientation programs before an employee leaves for his or her international assignment.
  4. Implement a mentor program in the host country to better acclimate an employee to the day-to-day office functions.
  5. Assign someone in your home office to serve as a counselor, of sorts, for expats with issues concerning equal employment opportunity protections.

Source: Human Resource Management (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1997) by Gary Dessler.

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