With more than 1,000 Inman posts, Bernice Ross is a long-time contributor whose weekly column on real estate trends, luxury, marketing and other best practices publishes every Monday.
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I recently had a conversation with one of my nieces that troubled me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Earlier this year, she was promoted to a director position (one step below a vice president) in a big company that is male-dominated. When the vice president position came open, she decided to apply for it, but recognized that it was a bit early in her career to actually land it.
The CEO told her why she wouldn’t be considered: “You could never be the face of the company at conferences and other events — you’re a woman.”
I immediately voiced my opinion that the CEO’s statement was discriminatory and that she should file a complaint with human resources. She elected not to take that route.
Fast forward to last week. A new vice president has been appointed and is a great fit for the position. My niece is thrilled to be working with someone of this caliber.
When I asked her about her new boss she said: “She’s a family person.”
Then she went on to say, “She’s gay. She and her partner have three children.”
When I asked about the CEO who said he wouldn’t hire a woman for that position and then did exactly that, her response was:
“He’s just backward — about 20 percent of the company is gay.”
Later that day, I realized what had been gnawing at me about the conversation. Instead of focusing on the CEO’s specific behavior towards her, she made a generalization about his attitude, and labeled him as being “backward” (about women) and then compounded the problem by alluding to the idea that 20 percent of the company is gay.
In other words, instead of looking at the problem from a job-related, functional point of view about her own qualifications, she pointed to the CEO and the firm’s attributes. She might be as biased as she supposes the CEO is against women without children.
If a conversation along these lines had taken place over a real estate transaction, there could be trouble. Any real estate professional involved in invoking an individual’s attributes or status risks violating fair housing laws or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s hiring regulations.
Regardless of your beliefs, your political affiliation or your passion for a specific cause, when it comes to real estate, personal bias can easily slip into a conversation.
Even the slightest slip in this area can result in violations of the Fair Housing Act and/or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. In many cases, the agents or clients making these mistakes might be unaware. The risk is hefty fines and even the possible loss of your license.
Fair Housing: The 7 protected classes
There are seven protected classes under the Federal Fair Housing Act. They include: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status.
A number of states also have additional protected classes. For example, in Colorado creed, sexual orientation, marital status and ancestry are also protected.
The trap: focusing on the person’s differences rather than a function or behavior
Almost every state requires agents to take a fair housing course not only as part of their licensing training, but also as part of their required continuing education to renew their license.
What agents often forget is how strict these laws are. To illustrate this point, the fair housing laws are so strict that you cannot even ask about “family” status.
Instead, you can ask: “How many people are in your household?”
To see how well you know the fair housing laws, take this quiz from the National Association of Realtors.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations
Similar guidelines exist when it comes to hiring.
The law forbids discrimination in every aspect of employment.
The laws enforced by EEOC prohibit an employer or other covered entity from using employment policies and practices that have a disproportionately negative effect on applicants or employees of: a particular race; color; religion; sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy); national origin; or on an individual with a disability or class of individuals with disabilities, if the polices or practices at issue are not job-related and necessary to the operation of the business.
Specifically, you cannot ask about any of the following:
- Criminal record
- Financial affairs
- Marital or family status
- National origin
- Race or color
In other words, you cannot ask or make decisions about hiring someone based on the person’s status or attributes, but you can ask about whether the individual can perform job-related functions.
Because EEOC guidelines overlap with the fair housing laws, it’s smart to pay attention to both. Here are two examples of questions you cannot ask, followed by what you can ask.
- NO: Are you a U.S. citizen?
- YES: Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?
- NO: Do you plan to, or do you already have children?
- YES: Are you available to work nights and weekends?
Where my niece crossed the line
Given the laws that govern the real estate industry and hiring in general, here is where my niece’s assumptions crossed the line, had she been in a position to affect the outcome of a transaction:
- She commented on the status of her new boss as a “family person.”
- She referenced her boss’s sexual orientation.
- Rather than calling out the CEO’s specific behavior with her, she labeled him as being “backward” (about women) and then compounded the problem by reiterating that 20 percent of the company is gay.
The key point to note here is that you can call out a behavior, but labeling people for their religious, political or almost any other type of beliefs or orientation can run afoul of state or federal fair housing laws.
Given how contentious real estate transactions can be, you must always be vigilant about following fair housing laws and if you are hiring, the EEOC guidelines. People who feel that you have the wrong attitude are free to report you to federal or state authorities about any perceived biases.
Remember, always check your bias at the door — the laws that govern our business require nothing less.
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Bernice Ross, president and CEO of BrokerageUP and RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles. Learn about her broker/manager training programs designed for women, by women, at BrokerageUp.com and her new agent sales training at RealEstateCoach.com/newagent.