The answer is “Yes” if your start-up has progressed far enough along to have hired six (6) employees. The Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) makes it illegal to discriminate in any aspect of employment, including tangible employment actions, because of an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability or age (between the ages of 40 through 69). Under the MHRA, an employer is “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has six or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year.” This means as your startup succeeds in growing, you must be aware of the 6-employee rule and the impact on your business if you violate the MHRA.
The MHRA covers every step of the employment process from interviewing candidates to on-the-job treatment to even potentially behavior on social media. If the harassment is by a supervisor on social media, generally the employer can be held directly liable. If the harassment is by a non-supervisory employee, the employer can be liable if the employer “knew or should have known” of the harassment. Additionally, the employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s harassment if it results in a demotion and/or firing (tangible employment action), as the MHRA does not provide for any defenses in this situation.
If an employee believes they have been discriminated against, they could bring a claim under the MHRA by filing a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The agency then investigates and brings a determination. If the agency finds no probable cause, the agency issues a right to sue to the employee. If the agency finds probable cause, the agency pursues the claim on the employee’s behalf.
While only your startup is subject to liability under the MHRA, this poses several risks for startups that fall under the employer definition. Startups, like other companies, focus on costs. Not including legal fees, costs assessed to a company found liable under the MHRA are capped on a sliding scale and just for a company that has between 6 and 100 employees the maximum can be up to $50,000; which could put you right out of business!
As the founder of your startup, you must make sure your supervisors know about and care about the MHRA and everyone strives to create a safe, inclusive, and productive work environment. This type of work environment will attract and retain the best employees and simultaneously limit risk, liability, and expenses to the start-up. So follow the rules and be successful!