Harassment in the workplace can have a devastating emotional and physical impact on an employee. When harassment by employers or co-workers is based on age, race, gender, or other protected classifications, and becomes so severe that it is difficult or stressful for the victim to do their job, the workplace is considered a hostile work environment and the employer can be subject to a lawsuit.
From our offices in Red Bank, NJ, and Marlton, NJ, McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C. represents both employees and employers throughout the state in a wide range of employment discrimination matters. With our many years of experience, we can anticipate any likely challenges in advocating for our clients and work tirelessly to overcome them.
What Does “Hostile Work Environment” Mean?
Employees who encounter annoying co-workers or demanding supervisors are not necessarily facing illegal harassment. A hostile work environment exists when several legal criteria are met, including:
- An employer or coworker’s harassment is severe, pervasive, intimidating, or abusive.
- The employee feels their job is in danger if they do not endure the harassment.
- The harassment involves discrimination of a protected class.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and recent amendments to that law make it illegal for an employer or coworker to harass an employee based on factors including:
- Age Discrimination
- Discrimination Based on Race, including Color
- Religious Discrimination
- Marital Status Discrimination
- Discrimination Based on National Origin
- Sexual harassment in the Workplace
- Pregnancy Discrimination
- Disability Discrimination, including Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Violations
- Discrimation Based on Gender Identity
- LGBTQ Discrimination
Harassment of anyone in these protected classes in the workplace is considered discrimination under federal law. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) provides employees in New Jersey with strong legal protection against employment discrimination.
What Behaviors are Considered Criteria for a Hostile Work Environment?
It is important to note that annoyances, petty grievances, and minor isolated incidents do not constitute illegal harassment. There are certain behaviors and conditions that can be considered a hostile work environment for an employee. Claims of harassment can be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) when the continued behaviors intimidate the employee, or make them feel uncomfortable in their work environment.
Inappropriate jokes, name-calling, insults, insinuations, offensive remarks, and comments that are made on a continual basis can be considered harassment when they are done intentionally and repeatedly, especially after the offending party has been warned about their actions.
Any type of groping, hitting, pushing, or inappropriate or unwelcome touching can be considered harassment when it is continuous and offensive. Sexual harassment in the workplace accounts for most physical harassment cases brought to the EEOC, and can occur between men and women, or same-sex individuals.
Harassment From Supervisors
Employees who are harassed by their supervisors may feel intimidated to report the behaviors for fear of losing their job. Federal, state, and local laws prohibit retaliation for reporting illegal behavior, but many employees report still fearing retribution if they report their supervisor. Supervisors that make racial slurs, inappropriate comments concerning age or religion, or that make unwelcome sexual advances over a period of time can be held liable for harassment. A supervisor who terminates or refuses to promote or hire an employee on the basis of their race, national origin, sex, pregnancy, or other protected class can be held liable under federal and state discrimination laws.
Harassment From Coworkers
An employer can be held liable by the EEOC if they allow a hostile work environment by failing to act on reports of harassment from coworkers. Racial slurs, inappropriate jokes, offensive gestures, or physical actions purposely meant to intimidate or insult a coworker are in violation of federal and state discrimination laws.
How Do I Prove Harassment at Work?
In order to prove that the employer has created a hostile work environment, an employee will have to prove that the harassment they endured was:
- Based on a Protected Characteristic. As explained above, this would include factors such as age, race, gender, or pregnancy.
- Offensive. The harassment took advantage of offensive stereotypes of their protected characteristic, such as crude remarks or jokes about race, gender, or disability.
- Unwelcome. Harassment must be proved to be unwelcome to the victim, which is sometimes an area of dispute if the employer claims the employee did not appear uncomfortable with the behavior or language. This is why it is important for employees to make it known immediately that they are not comfortable with the behavior and ask for it to stop.
- Severe or Pervasive. Isolated or minor incidents are usually not illegal, so the behavior must be proven to be serious and represent a pattern or series of incidents over time.
An experienced hostile work environment lawyer will be able to examine the employee’s situation and make the best case to prove this criteria.
Can I Sue My Employer for Creating a Hostile Work Environment?
Employers can be held liable for harassment of employees by supervisors, colleagues, and even contractors or customers when they fail to prevent or correct the reported harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for investigating cases of harassment that are reported, and will fully investigate and penalize those responsible.
According to the EEOC, the employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in the employee’s termination, failure to promote or hire, or loss of wages.
An employer can avoid liability if they can prove that they reasonably tried to prevent and correct the harassment, and that the employee did not take advantage of these preventive or corrective opportunities. Employers facing accusations of harassment must work closely with a hostile work environment lawyer who can develop the strongest possible defenses to these claims. Our firm represents a wide range of employers to prevent, investigate, and defend workplace harassment claims.
An Experienced NJ Hostile Work Environment Lawyer Can Help You
Whenever you feel you are being harassed in the workplace, or you witness the harassment of another, it is important to report it to your employer. If the employer fails to take action to correct the situation, you can reach out to an experienced and competent hostile work environment lawyer like those at the McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C.. We will review the details of your case and help you determine if you should pursue action through the EEOC. We can also defend you if you are an employer facing a claim of workplace harassment.