Jobs are stressful. Workers spend nearly half their waking hours on the job, and they deal with all sorts of challenges, including aggressive or angry coworkers and demeaning comments. Sometimes managing stress from work feels like another full-time job.
But even when your office has a cutthroat atmosphere, there are certain lines people shouldn’t cross. In fact, civil rights law prohibits the creation of a hostile work environment on the basis of certain characteristics. If you are harassed due to sex, race, religion, or another protected attribute, then you might be able to file a harassment claim for compensation. Contact the Law Offices of Usmaan Sleemi today. The law surrounding hostile work environments is not easy to summarize. For that reason, it isn’t always obvious whether your workplace is hostile or not. Reach out to a New Jersey hostile work environment lawyer for individualized advice about your situation. We are happy to meet with anyone at our office in Paramus, New Jersey.
When is a New Jersey Workplace Hostile?
All sorts of harassing or insulting conduct can make coming to work unpleasant. For example, many workers suffer the following:
- Slurs or insults
- Offensive nicknames
- Negative comments about people based on race, sex, or religion
- Denigrating gestures
- Groping or unwanted touching
This type of unwelcome conduct can make a workplace hostile if two conditions are met:
- The harassing conduct is motivated by or directed toward a protected class, and
- The conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive.
Protected Characteristics & Hostile Workplace in New Jersey
You do not have a hostile workplace claim simply because someone is insulting or mean. Instead, the hostility must be motivated by a protected characteristic or addressed to a protected class:
- National origin
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 identified the above characteristics as protected. Other federal laws and court decisions have expanded the list to include:
- Age (40 or older)
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Genetic information
The Civil Rights Act covers employers with 15 or more employees. Smaller employers are not covered under this law.
Helpfully, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) also protects workers from harassment. It applies to employers of any size in the state, so it offers critical protection to employees of smaller businesses. The LAD also protects additional characteristics not covered by federal law, such as marital or domestic partner status.
Why Does the Law Prohibit Hostile Work Environments?
Federal and state anti-discrimination laws strive to make the workplace open to anyone who is qualified. To that end, these laws prohibit some classic types of discrimination, such as firing someone due to their sex or race or passing someone over for a promotion because of their religion.
But a hostile work environment is also a type of discrimination—and judges have recognized that fact for more than 50 years. A worker who faces pervasive offensive behavior targeting them is less likely to stay in the job. They might even feel pressure to quit. Hostile work environments are less attractive to applicants from protected classes.
No one should have to put up with harassing offensive conduct at work. The Supreme Court of the United States has said that a workplace full of discriminatory insults and ridicule changes the conditions of employment and is abusive.
How Much Offensive Conduct Makes a Workplace Hostile?
There is a misconception that any harassing conduct automatically makes the workplace hostile. But that’s not really the case. Instead, the conduct must be sufficiently pervasive or severe that a reasonable person would find the workplace hostile. As judges mention all the time, Title VII is not a “general civility code.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that a stray offensive joke or remark is not enough, by itself, to make a workplace hostile. So one off-color or even outright racist joke is probably insufficient. On the other hand, one instance of physical violence or intimidation might be enough.
Think of a sliding scale. Some conduct is so offensive that even one or two instances make the workplace hostile. By contrast, other conduct is less offensive, so it must happen repeatedly.
There is no mathematical formula used to determine when a workplace is so abusive that it is illegal. Judges or juries analyzing your case will rely on their own experience and common sense. Our New Jersey hostile work environment attorneys have read thousands of court decisions and can analyze how a court would view your case.
Can You Sue Your Employer for a Hostile Work Environment?
The purpose of a harassment claim is to seek compensation. Ideally, we can sue your employer, who should have deep pockets to pay a settlement.
- Employers are not automatically responsible for workplace harassment. Instead, employer liability depends on who is doing the harassing:
- Supervisor. When your boss’ harassment creates a hostile work environment, then you can sue the employer.
- Non-supervisory employees or non-employees. In this case, your employer is responsible only if they knew (or should have known) about the harassment and did not take prompt action to stop it.
For example, imagine if your coworkers are harassing you when your supervisor is not present. Your employer is not automatically liable because they don’t know about it. This is one reason why you should report the harassment using established grievance procedures. Reporting to Human Resources or your supervisor puts the company on notice that there is a problem. They must address the issue appropriately and promptly, otherwise, you could sue them if the hostile work environment continues.
Misconceptions about New Jersey Hostile Work Environments
This area of law is rife with confusion and misconceptions spread on the internet:
- You can’t sue unless you have a nervous breakdown or quit your job. That’s not true. The Supreme Court has said that a workplace is hostile well before it is so abusive that workers have a mental breakdown.
- A worker who hears an offensive joke has a harassment lawsuit. The test is whether a reasonable person would find the workplace hostile or abusive. Some people are naturally more sensitive.
- You can’t sue unless you are the target of the harassment. Actually, a workplace could be hostile even if no one says anything offensive to you. Imagine coworkers who tell sexist jokes all day and display pornographic images. Although they are not targeting any specific worker, the environment might very well feel oppressive and hostile.
- White employees can’t bring a hostile work environment claim. That’s inaccurate. We tend to think of racial minorities or women suffering the bulk of discrimination at work, and statistics bear that out. However the prohibition on racial harassment protects workers of all races. If you are being harassed because of your race, you might have a valid claim.
Contact our firm to obtain accurate advice tailored to the specific facts of your workplace. A New Jersey hostile work environment attorney will review.
How Our Law Firm Can Help
Our lawyers are prepared to tackle a case from start to finish. For example, we can help you find evidence to show a workplace is hostile. The worker bears the burden of proving this fact. That means coming forward with evidence, such as:
- Witnesses who observed harassing conduct
- Harassing or intimidating voice mails or notes
- Offensive emails
- Pictures of any offensive images displayed at work
We will also determine whether to file a claim with the EEOC or the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. In some situations, we might even be able to sue immediately in court. A key consideration is getting a complaint filed before the relevant deadline. Workers do not have an indefinite amount of time to protest a hostile work environment.
Our law firm will also discuss available remedies, such as compensation for emotional distress. If your employer fired you, then we can also seek backpay and other remedies.
How Employers Defend Themselves
Our firm has negotiated many harassment settlements, so we are familiar with the most common defenses. Some companies will claim you initiated sexual banter or racial jokes, or that you were at least a willing participant.
Other companies will claim they had no idea harassment was taking place. That’s why it’s critical to complain in a timely manner using your company’s established grievance process. Other defendants will claim you are hypersensitive and are making a big deal out of nothing. They might even argue, “No one else has complained.” Let us provide an objective assessment.
Still, other defendants claim you took too long to complain. They might even allege you are making up a story about harassment to cover up poor job performance or termination. Our lawyers will immediately respond to any frivolous defense raised by the other side.
Speak with a New Jersey Hostile Work Environment Lawyer Today
Every employee in New Jersey deserves to be treated with dignity. Harassment and hateful conduct undermine a worker’s emotional and physical well-being. Call the Law Offices of Usmaan Sleemi today to discuss your situation. In a confidential meeting, we can review the conduct you have endured and analyze whether it is actionable under state or federal law. Then we can discuss the next steps, including finding relevant evidence to use in support of your claim.
Law Offices of Usmaan Sleemi LLC.
New Jersey Office:
66 NJ-17 #500,
Paramus, New Jersey 07652