The civil rights act signed last November will make life much more difficult for employers who are sued by employees alleging discrimination. Here's why:

* Instead of awards for back pay, the traditional salve for employees who were discriminated against, the act allows for compensatory damages (future losses and suffering) and punitive damages (to punish and deter an employer from future discriminatory behavior). The potential for significant damage awards will likely encourage lawsuits. The amount that may be awarded depends on the number of employees:

* * *

Number Maximum

of employees damage awards

15-100 $50,000

101-200 $100,000

201-500 $200,000

more than 500 $300,000

* * *

* Discrimination used to be assessed and decided by a judge. The new act will let an employee who is alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex (see "The Cost of Sexual Harassment," Managing People, No. 05921452, May 1992), or disability request that a jury determine his or her company's guilt and the amount of its liability. Juries tend to be more sympathetic to employees than judges are.

* Before the act was passed, employers in certain kinds of discrimination suits simply had to show there was a business reason for a particular policy. The employee had the ultimate burden of persuasion. Now the employer does. The act requires employers to justify a challenged practice by proving it was necessary to operate the business.

* Employees bringing a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 are covered by the new act.

* * *

The law firms Blank, Rome Comisky & McCauley (215-569-5500) and Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman (914-328-0404) have published useful summaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Both are free.

Mark Brossman, a labor and employment lawyer at Chadbourne & Parke (212-408-1027), gives specific instructions in his free "Ten Practical Tips for Compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1991."

Stephen Cabot, a senior partner at Philadelphia-based Harvey, Pennington, Herting & Renneisen, will answer any questions about the act for free, over the firm's Labor Hotline (800-835-0353). -- Ellyn E. Spragins